Blackhawks

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

nickschmaltzblackhawks.jpg
USA TODAY

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

Nick Schmaltz centered Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane at Saturday’s scrimmage, scoring the team’s first goal and earning the approval of coach Joel Quenneville.

So is there a possibility Schmaltz’s shot at center comes on that second line?

“Could happen,” Quenneville said with a grin.

Whether you’re fluent in Q-speak or not, that one’s pretty clear. Schmaltz is off to a good start, has some experience under his belt at that spot from last season and may get more of a chance there now.

All of this is relative, of course. There’s a lot of time between now and October but Quenneville has liked what he’s seen with Kane and Schmaltz for two consecutive days. Schmaltz, who was also considered a left-wing option on that second line — at least before the Blackhawks traded to get Sharp back — skated with Kane some this summer.

“I think it’s just getting our timing down. We built some chemistry over the summer and I think our games match each other pretty well,” Schmaltz said. “We both like to find each other and make plays, so just getting that chemistry and that timing down, I think will lead to more success.”

Again, a concern at center with Schmaltz — actually, overall with this team past Jonathan Toews — is faceoffs. It’s something Schmaltz will continue to work on but if this combo gets any time together, Sharp could always be an option in the circle, too.

Quenneville said Schmaltz’s improved strength around the puck is noticeable, “but one of his abilities is coming up with loose pucks and getting it out there and making a neat play, which is good for us.

“Having the puck cleanly exiting our zone is a good thing. Offensively, that’s his strength and that’s where his natural ability is, but he’ll add to that part of his game, like faceoffs, and getting stronger is something that’s noticeable last year to this year,” Quenneville continued. “It seems like he’s stronger around the puck and in and around those tight areas.”

Schmaltz got his first chance at second-line center when Artem Anisimov was injured last season. Even if Anisimov starts as the third-line center, nothing is set in stone; nothing ever is with the Blackhawks lines. But Schmaltz has shown enough improvement in the offseason is building chemistry with Kane and appears to be getting the second-line opportunity first.

“Arty’s proven he can play in his own end, around the net, in the offensive zone as well. Schmaltzy has the puck a lot more which is nice as well. It’s a good situation on a need basis or on performance basis,” Quenneville said. “That’ll sort itself out.”

LEGENDARY FINISH

Denis Savard and Steve Larmer joined current Blackhawks to wrap up Saturday’s scrimmage. Players enjoyed the opportunity to skate with the team’s legends.

“Yeah it’s really special,” Vinnie Hinostroza said. “Growing up in Chicago, you know who those guys are. Growing up you hear your parents, grandparents talking about them, and the last few years I’ve gotten to know Savvy pretty well. So skating with them was really special. It was awesome to see those guys come out.”

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

1020_hawks_yotes.jpg

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Arizona Coyotes Saturday night on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Niklas Hjalmarsson's new home.

Brace yourselves, Chicago. It's going to be a weird site seeing Hjalmarsson in a different sweater other than the Blackhawks, where he spent his first 10 NHL seasons and won three Stanley Cups.

Now he serves as an alternate captain and blue-line anchor for the Coyotes, who are the only team still seeking its first win of the season. You know they'll be hungry to snap that skid, especially when there's extra motivation for a player on their team facing a bunch of old friends.

2. Connor Murphy returns to Arizona, too.

The man Hjalmarsson was traded for will also be returning to a place he called home for four years. Murphy's role with the Coyotes increased every year before he was dealt to the Blackhawks as part of a shake-up for both teams, so you know he's going to play with something to prove.

Murphy is a physical defenseman, and has laid several notable big hits this season. His former teammates surely know it, and may want to keep their heads up.

3. Patrick Kane 2.0?

Ever since he was drafted with the No. 7 overall pick in 2016, Clayton Keller has drawn comparisons to Kane. They're both undersized, offensive playmakers, possess supreme stick-handling abilities and are American-born players.

Keller got a brief taste of NHL action last year, but he's secured a full-time spot with the Coyotes this season and has been arguably their best player so far.

The 19-year-old forward paces all rookies with five goals and ranks second with seven points, and leads the Coyotes in both categories. Expect to see his name as a finalist for the Calder Trophy for the league's top rookie at the end of the season.

Anton Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they need

1020_anton_forsberg.jpg
USA TODAY

Anton Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they need

Anton Forsberg had just finished an extended morning skate Wednesday morning in St. Louis. The backup goaltender had played in one regular-season game for the Blackhawks to that point, so getting in extra work to stay sharp was helpful.

“I try to keep my focus in practice and work extra every day, get a few extra shots in practice with the extra guys who are out there, work with Jimmy and try to keep my game shape,” Forsberg said, referring to Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite.

Whatever Forsberg’s working on in practice and skates seems to be working, because in two games with the Blackhawks he’s looked sharp. Forsberg probably deserved a victory on Thursday night when he stopped 40 shots in the Blackhawks’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers. It’s the backup life to wait and see when that next start will come, but Forsberg has been ready.

“For sure I felt more comfortable today, more used to the speed,” he said following Thursday’s game. “I felt I read the game better, felt I had more time moving around. It’s tough, again, to lose in overtime. Obviously I wanted to win and it’s frustrating.”

Frustrating for sure, but Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they want and need: a dependable backup that gives them a chance to win. The two goals Forsberg gave up on Thursday weren’t softies, either — Patrick Maroon’s goal off a ridiculous Connor McDavid pass and Mark Letestu’s over game-winner that deflected off Brent Seabrook’s stick.

“He kept us in a tight game like he did in Toronto, got us to overtime. I kind of feel bad we didn’t get him a win in either of those,” Ryan Hartman said. “He played well both of those games. It’s nice to have a guy on the back end like that.”

Forsberg has blended in well with the Blackhawks. It helps that he already knew two of them, Brandon Saad and Artem Anisimov, his former teammates in Columbus. He and Corey Crawford already have a good rapport. Same goes for he and Waite, and Forsberg has soaked up any information they’ve given him.

“I feel like both him and Corey teach me a lot. We talk about different situations, especially all the reads,” Forsberg said. “I get to know how (Crawford) thinks the game. He’s been around a long time and has been doing well, so it’s interesting every day to hear what he has to say. Even Jimmy’s been around same thing there, discussing my game, what we want to improve, what we want to do different, what to keep the same and go from there.”

The extra work in practices and skates appears to be working as Forsberg has done a lot right in just his first two games, which were 10 days apart. The Blackhawks have had a good run of backup goaltenders; two games is a small sample size but Forsberg could be the latest reliable backup.