CHICAGO (AP) — While the Chicago Blackhawks tumbled into last place last season, Nick Schmaltz showed off the flashy skills that made him a first-round pick in 2014.
Another step forward for the center might have more to do with his mental approach than any improvement on the ice.
The 22-year-old Schmaltz is focused on consistency as he tries to make the transition from promising young player to elite NHL forward. His progress on that front could have a big impact on Chicago’s success after it missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“I think that just comes with maturity and knowing how to play that full 82-game season where you’re playing the same type of game every single night,” Schmaltz said Saturday after the Blackhawks’ annual training camp festival.
“That’s what the best players in the league do. It’s tough to do. It’s a grind. It’s a lot of mental preparation and work and making sure you’re taking care of yourself every day and come to work every day.”
Schmaltz broke into the NHL in 2016 and finished with six goals and 22 assists in 61 games as Chicago won the Central Division title. He moved to another level last season, collecting 21 goals and 31 assists in 78 games, but the Blackhawks faltered without injured goaltender Corey Crawford.
Another big leap for Schmaltz would go a long way toward replacing some of the scoring lost when Chicago traded Artemi Panarin to Columbus in June 2017.
“I think he can be a top player in the league,” said teammate Patrick Kane, long one of the NHL’s most productive forwards. “The way he skates, the way he sees the game, the way he can pass the puck, and he’s really got an underrated knack to find open areas and get his one-timer off, too.
“So I think he can take another jump for sure. He’s still a pretty young guy, but I think he’s one of those guys that we’re going to be leaning on pretty heavily.”
Schmaltz, Kane and Brandon Saad played together on the first two days of training camp, including Saturday’s scrimmage. Schmaltz and Kane showed some chemistry when they played together in the past, and Saad could benefit from the creativity and vision of his new linemates.
“I think when you watch (Schmaltz) on a day like today, he can wow you on shifts,” coach Joel Quenneville said, “and I think that being a little bit more consistent having high-end shifts and all of the sudden that’s going to take your game to the next level.”
Schmaltz was selected by Chicago with the 20th pick in the 2014 draft. He played two seasons for the University of North Dakota before signing a three-year contract with the Blackhawks, helping the Fighting Hawks win the NCAA title in his final year at the school.
Schmaltz, whose brother Jordan is part of the Blues’ organization, is eligible for restricted free agency after this season, but he said he isn’t concerned about a possible contract extension right now.
“I think I just got to focus on my game,” he said. “Play to the best of my ability. First things first is helping the team win. That comes first. When the team’s winning, I think that’s when you have your most success, you have more fun, and then all of that stuff kind of falls into place.”