Nick Schmaltz

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

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USA TODAY

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

Nick Schmaltz seemed to be everywhere the puck was on Saturday night. Great pursuit of the puck, great passes to Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat and an all-around confidence that’s becoming more apparent by the game.

So has coach Joel Quenneville seen what he’s needed to from Schmaltz at second-line center?

“And more.”

It’s been a pretty impressive showing for Schmaltz this month. The 21-year-old has played in all three of the Blackhawks’ preseason games and keeps getting better in each one. The uncertainty Schmaltz understandably showed as a rookie is gone; the NHL game no longer feels uncomfortable.

“I feel like the game’s slowing down for me, just seeing plays,” Schmaltz said. “I know what I’m doing with the puck before I get it. It feels good and just trying to get better every day.”

Schmaltz and his fellow second liners didn’t connect for goals in the Blackhawks 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The three combined for 12 of the Blackhawks’ 54 shots on goal – Kane and DeBrincat each had five – and the chemistry continues to build between the three.

Jonathan Toews talked on Saturday morning of how much more relaxed Schmaltz looks with the puck now, and that was evident again later that night.

“He’s really starting to get comfortable physically at this level,” Toews said. “He thinks the game so well, puts himself in good spots, much like Kaner where he can skate with the puck and use his speed. He has his head up so he backs guys off. Those two were making great plays tonight and Brinksy was fitting in well. They couldn’t buy a goal but Schmaltzy’s getting better and better, and you’re’ seeing that calm poise that he has really come out the more he gets comfortable.”

Schmaltz was likely getting a second-line audition in some capacity this fall; the original thought was at left wing in the wake of Artemi Panarin’s trade. But Schmaltz has always felt at his best at center. He’s showing that. And more.

“It’s always fun to play no matter if it’s preseason or regular season," he said. "I’m always happy to play, especially when you’re playing with great players. I feel like I’m more comfortable in the middle, able to use my speed a little bit more, create more offense that way.

"I think it’s going well. Wherever I end up, I’ll be happy.”

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

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Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

One week down, roughly one week to go.

Some things have fallen into place during the Blackhawks’ first seven days of training camp but this week is when it really gets interesting. The roster will continue to take shape and the competition for the few vacancies will intensify. Here’s a look at what we’ve already seen in Week 1 and questions for Week 2.

Stock Rising

Jordan Oesterle. We could put a few of the young forwards here, but we’ve talked about them quite a bit and will continue to do so. So right now let’s look at Oesterle, who coach Joel Quenneville liked “a lot” in Thursday’s game against the Red Wings. A puck moving defenseman, Oesterle said he played on the right side with the Edmonton Oilers but could also play on the left. If Oesterle has another good week of camp, that and his versatility might get him a chance on a Blackhawks defense still looking for the right pieces.  

Stock Falling

Tomas Jurco. Please realize where we’re coming from with this assessment: where does he fit in this lineup? He didn’t get a lot of opportunities last season but when he did play there wasn’t anything that made him stand out. Stan Bowman likes him and much like with David Rundblad, the Blackhawks want to give the Jurco a chance to justify the draft pick they gave up for him (a third-round selection from the 2017 draft). Several young guys are pushing hard for roster spots. Can Jurco be an every-day player or do the Blackhawks have a decision to make in favor of some of those up-and-coming players? Just very interested to see how this turns out.

Biggest surprise

Nick Schmaltz’s second-line center opportunity. Maybe we should’ve been more open minded to this happening but considering how little that line changed last year you figured Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane would stay together even after the Artemi Panarin trade. But given the strides Schmaltz has made in his own game and the skating work he and Kane did together this offseason, Quenneville wants to see what Schmaltz can do in the middle. There’s always tinkering with this team; we really should have seen the possibility coming but we didn’t.

Some Remaining Questions

- If there’s one forward spot vacant out of training camp, which young player wins it? John Hayden. Here’s why: even if Alex DeBrincat doesn’t make this team out of camp, the Blackhawks’ top six is looking pretty good. Meanwhile the bottom six, especially that fourth line, has some holes. Getting a young player with some size, speed, skill and sandpaper that Quenneville likes and trusts (and he likes and trusts Hayden) would be a great addition to the bottom six.

- Will there be any surprises on defense? Maybe. Part of it depends on what the Blackhawks do about the Michal Rozsival situation. Rozsival didn’t pass his physical (upper body injury) and is not participating in camp. You hate to see someone go out like this, but it may be the end for the veteran. If so, the seventh defensive spot opens up and so do the Blackhawks options. After Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy you have Cody Franson (if the Blackhawks sign him), Oesterle and Jan Rutta who have made good preseason impacts. Michal Kempny’s in the mix, too. Gustav Forsling is on the bubble. He had a great camp last fall but didn’t improve off it; that has to change this season.

- Will the top line combination work? There’s no doubt the Blackhawks missed Brandon Saad. He may not have been facing the sturdiest Red Wings team on Thursday but Saad’s powerful game was nevertheless impressive and a reminder of how much the Blackhawks missed that element the last two seasons. But the Saad-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik combo hasn’t gotten a great look yet — Toews missed Thursday’s game due to illness. Saturday should be the first chance to see if these three can really click.

DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane second line opens its (potential) show vs. Red Wings

DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane second line opens its (potential) show vs. Red Wings

Coach Joel Quenneville has seen the second line of Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane in a few practices and scrimmages thus far. Now he’ll test them against the opposition.

The trio is expected to be together when the Blackhawks face the Detroit Red Wings tonight at the United Center. Whether this becomes a line in the near future or further down the road (the more likely scenario), it’s a chance to see what the combination of speed and skill can do against another lineup, albeit against a prospect-laden Red Wings roster.

“Yeah, looking forward to seeing that group, Schmaltzy with Kaner is something I want to see as well,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You’re looking for how guys connect as a pair or as line mates. Maybe there’s some chemistry you develop during a game like this.”

Quenneville’s additional look at Schmaltz and Kane is another reminder that the second-line, left-wing spot is the Blackhawks’ new “lottery spot.” DeBrincat is there now and he Schmaltz and Kane are definitely worth a look at this point of the preseason. The plusses are evident: some speed and plenty of skill. The biggest minus would be the lack of size on that line and faceoffs, which are going to be a work in progress for this team overall this season.

Still, the focus right now is what that line could do, be it in the immediate future or later down the road. While Kane is the veteran of the line, he doesn’t foresee having to do a lot of tutelage.

“Sometimes they ask a lot of questions throughout scrimmages and different things,” he said. “Right now you tell them to play their own game. The coaches will take them aside and tell them how to play and as time goes on, when they get more comfortable and even before the season you start talking about things you can work on or things that may be effective throughout the game. But not too much now. I just let them do their own thing.”

DeBrincat said he learned a lot from last year’s training camp that he tried to apply in his final season with the Erie Otters, from improving his overall game to taking better care of himself off the ice. As far as teaming with Kane and Schmaltz, he’ll go with what’s worked for him up to this point.

“Those two guys are very skilled players and for me, I’m just trying to find some open ice and get into open areas to where they can pass to me because both are tremendous passers,” he said. “I just have to find my areas and read off them.”

Thursday’s preseason home opener was about getting good looks, the one Quenneville will take of that whole second line – and of Kane and Schmaltz – and to see if that combination can generate anything off the good looks they’ll get against the Red Wings. For DeBrincat it’s a chance to see what he can do at the next level and whether it earns him something big now or later.

“I just wanted to get my chance and I think they’re giving me as many chances as they can,” DeBrincat said. “Hopefully I can just run away with it and do what I do.”