Chicago Blackhawks’ Nick Schmaltz Proves Worth With Absence

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 05: Nick Schmaltz
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 05: Nick Schmaltz /

Chicago Blackhawks forwardd Nick Schmaltz missed Monday’s game at Toronto due to injury, and his absence made it clear he’s now a big part of this team

If the Chicago Blackhawks had to be without one specific player for at least one game, which one do you think would make for the most noticeable absence? Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are easy answers. Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad are good ones as well.

But what about youngster Nick Schmaltz? Last season, you certainly wouldn’t have put him in that category. He was developing as a hockey player amid his first NHL experience, needing an AHL stint to gain some confidence on the ice.

But from this summer’s training camp on, Schmaltz has been a whole different player. He’s teamed up with Kane and whoever is on their left wing — Ryan Hartman, Alex DeBrincat or Patrick Sharp — to make beautiful offensive music for the Blackhawks.

While he’s still a work in progress on his faceoff prowess, he was lights-out to open the season in about every other key department. So it was unfortunate that he’d have to miss Monday’s game in Toronto, in addition to missing tonight’s in Montreal. But it wouldn’t be an earth-shattering loss, right?

Blackhawks’ second line implodes

Well, the Blackhawks’ second line looked pretty lost against the Maple Leafs. None of the Blackhawks’ lines posted great possession numbers in the 4-3 overtime defeat, but the line of Hartman-Artem Anisimov-Kane was particularly bad, as none of them were better 18.75 percent in Corsi-for at even strength.

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  • A lot of guys could accidentally post a better rate than that. They were most frequently matched up against Auston Matthews‘ line, along with defensemen Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev, and absolutely had their lunch eaten.

    Matthews and linemate William Nylander are really impressive players, don’t get me wrong. But Gardiner and Zaitsev aren’t exactly pushing for the Norris Trophy anytime soon, and I’m still not sure who Zach Hyman is besides being a guy whose last name makes for bad jokes.

    That a Kane-led line could get so badly outplayed by such guys after producing 17 points against the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Nick Foligno, Seth Jones and Ryan Murray in the first two games this season is baffling on its face.

    Some of this could be based in the Penguins and Blue Jackets both being on the butt end of a back-to-back, yes. But we’re not talking about a drop from 52 percent to 45 percent in 5-on-5 Corsi-for.

    Here are the Corsi-for marks for Kane and Hartman this season. Remember, they were with Schmaltz for the opener and without him for just about all of the Columbus game and all of the Toronto game.

    Kane: 65.52/42.86/14.29

    Hartman: 60.53/38.10/18.75

    Even in the Jackets game, when Kane had two points and Hartman had one, it was clear the two weren’t getting nearly as many opportunities with the puck as they did when Schmaltz was around. And that was with last change. Look how poorly things went last night without it.

    Importance of Nick Schmaltz

    So when did Schmaltz all of the sudden become an offensive key for the Blackhawks? Well, when A) he found his confidence and willingness to do more than just pass; B) he was put in a position to actually use his east-west playmaking skills; and C) his speed was added to increased responsibilities, leading to more puck possession for some good/great players.

    Getting the puck on Kane’s stick, or that of one of his linemates, is never going to be bad for the Blackhawks. Even though he’s still working out some faceoff kinks, the fact Schmaltz can still use his speed and stickwork to help the Blackhawks gain possession is the first step to increased scoring chances, no matter the line he’s on.

    Now add Kane to the mix, as well as Schmaltz’s own skills. Also add a moderately talented left wing in Hartman as well — also a forward who doesn’t mind charging to the net — and you have a unit that’s going to produce at least a little bit each night, even against tougher matchups.

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    Anisimov is not a bad center by any means, but he’s not fast and not a standout playmaker. Even though his faceoff percentage is a solid 58 so far, it can’t always make up for the fact Anisimov can’t do quite as much with the puck or with his feet as Schmaltz can.

    So now you have a center and a left wing who do better work when feeding off playmakers lining up with Kane, who makes for a pretty easy cover at that point. Combine that with last change, and you see some nasty possession stats — and a second line without any points.

    Effect on the team

    And that’s the biggest thing. Against a team like the Maple Leafs, anyone could have told you three goals wasn’t going to be enough. Toronto is one of those teams that is fast enough to still burn the Blackhawks, as revamped as they might claim to be. Combine that with how much talent their forwards have, and you just need to pound them into submission via scoring.

    The Blackhawks started on that path in the first period, then were summarily decimated in the possession game. It took a while due to Anton Forsberg coming up with some great saves, but eventually the Leafs did break through.

    Not every team the Blackhawks face will be the Leafs. The Oilers are a fast team. The Predators also are. But the elite speed teams will not be on Chicago’s schedule each night.

    That being said, these are teams that will need to be gotten past in the postseason. Maybe Toronto is in the East, but the Preds and Oilers are front and center in the West. In a seven-game series, how often do you think the Blackhawks are going to succeed when Kane is carrying possession at less than 15 percent at evens?

    That’s why the Blackhawks need Schmaltz to get healthy, and why they need to plant him firmly on the second line. I believe that is more important to the second line’s success this season than who’s at left wing. Whether it’s Hartman, DeBrincat or Sharp, it’ll work as long as Schmaltz and Kane are there and healthy.

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    I’m not trying to make this sound like the Blackhawks are screwed if Schmaltz keeps getting hurt (two injuries in two games is not a positive outlook, though). But I am trying to hammer home the importance Schmaltz now has on this team. That moment arrived quickly, but it’s here and here to stay.