All a young player ever hears about the jump to the NHL is that there’s just no time and space on the ice. All the players are so fast, so big, so strong, that there isn’t time to think out there, let alone make a play. So in his first few NHL games, Nick Schmaltz naturally assumed that every time the puck touched his stick, he had to get rid of it. Almost immediately.
But it turns out, he had more time than he thought.
“I was just throwing it away at times the first couple of games,” Schmaltz said. “Obviously, you’re nervous your first couple of games, and you don’t want to mess up. But you’ve just got to sit back and play your game. If you’re a playmaker, make plays. If you’re a goal-scorer, score goals. I’ve just gotten more confident and adjusted to the speed. I feel like I can make plays out there, and I definitely have more time than I thought I did.”
The Hawks have given Schmaltz time, too, offering him a long leash as he adjusts to the NHL. While more experienced rookies Vinnie Hinostroza and Ryan Hartman have been scratched, Schmaltz has played in every game. Whether he plays well or poorly, he’s been put right back out there the next game. And he’s gradually earning more responsibility, even playing on the power play the last two games while Gustav Forsling has been out with an upper-body injury (he’ll likely return to the lineup on Tuesday against the Calgary Flames). Schmaltz called the power play his “bread and butter,” and picked up an assist on Jonathan Toews’ power-play goal Sunday night against Los Angeles.
So when Schmaltz spouts the usual clichés about trying to get better every game, he really means it. Every game is a new chance to figure something out, to learn something new, to take that next step.
“You can see the skill is there,” Patrick Kane said. “He’s a great skater — almost undercover, where you didn’t really know he had that much speed. And he’s confident coming through the middle of the ice with the puck. There’s a lot of good things. It’s just kind of getting adjusted to playing at this level.”
Few players make the leap directly to the NHL. Most come up through the minor leagues, or the European pro leagues. The ones that jump straight from juniors (or in Schmaltz’s case, college) to the NHL are usually high first-round picks bound for superstardom. Kane went straight from the OHL to the NHL in 2007. Of course, he was the No. 1 overall pick, and went on to win the Calder Trophy after posting 21 goals and 51 assists as a rookie.
Schmaltz, the 20th pick in the 2014 draft, still has things he needs to work on. His 32.8 faceoff percentage is among the five lowest in the league. He needs to be more aggressive after posting just six shots on goal through nine games. But the skill is there. The vision is there. The hockey IQ is there.
But even for Kane, the jump to the NHL was eye-opening. Opponents have quicker sticks. They’re harder to keep off your back, and harder to knock off the puck. And there are no mismatches, no easy shifts.
“[In the juniors], the top six and maybe the top two ‘D’ on each team are really good,” Kane said. “Then it’s kind of a big drop-off after that. In the NHL, you don’t really see much of a drop-off. Teams are so good now. There’s so much depth up and down the lineups. No matter who you’re playing against, it’s going to be a tough matchup.”
That’s the other adjustment a young player has to make. Like nearly every other NHL player, Schmaltz has been a top player his whole life, at every level. Last season, as a sophomore at North Dakota, he had 46 points in 37 games. He’s used to big minutes and big production, but through nine games with the Hawks, he has just a goal and an assist.
But as a bottom-six forward, the Hawks haven’t asked much more of him. The hope is that with each passing game, they can ask a little bit more.
“That’s the progression to this level,” Joel Quenneville said. “All the kids at every level — you get to that next hurdle, can you develop? Are you able to withstand it? Can you excel and be a top guy at that next level? Everybody, when they’re younger, they’re top guys. At this level, it’s a whole different level. And trying to get established is the ultimate goal.”