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Nick Schmaltz gets a chance to shine as Blackhawks’ 2nd-line center

Nobody on the Blackhawks has more pressure on them following Artem Anisimov’s injury than Nick Schmaltz. The 20-year-old is expected to fill Anisimov’s role as the No. 2 center during his absence, which is expected to take 3-4 weeks, more or less running through the end of the regular season.

For Schmaltz, this is a big moment. He’s often impressed during his rookie season, but never quite in a role like this. After showing he could capably fill top six minutes during a stint at left wing with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik, he’s being asked to center a line with two of the most talented scorers in hockey.

This isn’t necessarily something new for him, though. While Schmaltz has bounced all over the lineup this season, including time on the fourth line and in the AHL, he’s familiar with being a key center in big moments. The hope is that, with Anisimov set to return for the playoffs, Schmaltz can elevate his game as a stopgap to sustain the Blackhawks’ momentum.

The college days

Given how much time he’s spent at winger this season, it’s easy to forget that Schmaltz often played center on the top line at the University of North Dakota. That group, which included Schmaltz, Brock Boeser, and Drake Caggiula, powered the Fighting Hawks to a national championship in 2016.

Their positional assignments weren’t especially firm — Boeser often took draws instead — but as the resident playmaker on that line, Schmaltz regularly lined up in the middle. Looking at his new gig between Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, there are some similarities between what he’ll be expected to do.

At North Dakota, Schmaltz was all about feeding Boeser and Caggiula, and they thrived together. Schmaltz only had 11 goals, but he led the team with 35 assists. His playmaking helped Boeser (27 goals) and Caggiula (25 goals) rank among the top scorers in the country.

Schmaltz benefitted from playing with great talents in that situation (Boeser is an elite prospect for the Canucks, Caggiula is already a member of the Oilers), but he also showed that he can fit in with that caliber of player. During the Fighting Hawks’ 2016 title run, Schmaltz made a number of monster plays, including the game-winning goal against Denver that sent UND to the championship game.

Obviously it’s a whole different beast playing in the NHL versus the college game, but this assignment isn’t some grand departure from Schmaltz’s past experiences. And now that he’s spent the past few months learning the pace and intricacies of the NHL while building his confidence, the hope is that he’ll continue thriving in a role well-tailored for his skill set.

Finding consistency

The key for Schmaltz, as it has been most of the season, is finding a way to consistently contribute. He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest skater, and sometimes he runs into matchups that give him trouble. The rookie is not yet at the point of someone like Toews or Kane, who are expected to put up numbers regardless of who they’re lining up against.

During the month of February, Schmaltz played his best hockey yet as a professional. The forward put up 10 points in 10 games as he settled into the top line left winger role, and his 5-on-5 Corsi of 54.6 percent was a major step up from earlier in the season. It seemed like the forward was finally coming into his own as an impact player at the NHL level.

Not that Schmaltz was going to keep averaging a point-per-game, but his numbers stumbled over the past few contests. In five games in March, he’s recorded three assists, which isn’t bad. The Blackhawks’ possession numbers with him on the ice cratered to just 41.5 percent during that stretch, though.

That’s not all on Schmaltz by any means — the Hawks’ Corsi numbers have been poor as a team recently — but there are still times when he struggles to make an impact. He’s recorded zero shots on goal over the past two games, for example. That’s pretty much unacceptable from a top-six forward expected to generate offense, even if he’s more playmaker than goal scorer.

So maybe this can give Schmaltz’s game a little kick in the ass again like we saw when he first got paired up with Toews and Panik a month ago. There’s little doubt that he’ll be put in highly favorable positions, not only with the talent next to him, but given the extremely offensive-minded deployment that Panarin usually enjoys. Assuming that doesn’t change, Schmaltz should also enjoy some pretty cozy assignments for putting up numbers over the next 3-4 weeks.