Nick Schmaltz is known for being an offensively-gifted playmaker.
But he has turned into one of the NHL's best at a key defensive part of the game: pickpocketing. In hockey terms, that is.
In Sunday's contest alone, Schmaltz recorded four takeaways — two of which came within a 19-second span — to give him 14 on the season, which trails Shea Theodore by three for the league lead. A year ago Schmaltz finished third among all skaters with 86; only Jeff Skinner (93) and Connor McDavid (111) had more, putting him with some pretty good company.
So what makes him so good at it?
"I kind of try to be deceptive," Schmaltz said. "Whether I'm chasing a guy, act like I'm not skating very hard and then once you can tell he gets lazy with the puck, you don't know if he just forgets about me behind him, that's when I take three or four hard strides; I use a longer stick so I just reach and pick and turn away."
Schmaltz has an extremely quick stick-lift and has the ability to turn away just as fast, whether it's on his forehand or backhand, which was evident in this example from one of his four takeaways against the Edmonton Oilers:
Not only did it help prevent a scoring chance, but it also gave the Blackhawks a chance to create one on the other end.
"I've never really been a physical guy, so that's kind of been my way of getting pucks back and just sustaining stuff in the offensive zone, is having a good stick," Schmaltz said. "A lot of those plays when you can make a turnover like that, you can create a 2-on-1 quick or a 3-on-2 the other way and that's a big part of the game. I don't know if it's really talked about that much, but it's kind of an underrated part of the game. There are a lot of guys in the league that have really good sticks. I like doing it too, it's a good feeling when you can strip a guy from behind."
In the fifth game of the season against the St. Louis Blues, Schmaltz showed the ability to do exactly what he mentioned above all in one shift: take a few hard strides, catch the puckholder napping, use his quick stick to steal the puck and, in doing so, create a prime scoring chance for himself:
It's a talent coaches certainly appreciate when an offensive player can make such a subtle, but potential big impact on the game by something he does defensively.
"He's got some quickness and then all of a sudden he gets on the guy quicker," Joel Quenneville said. "He's got some strength on the stick a little bit more this year and the way he does it, it's almost like from one direction to the other direction, it's pretty good because he doesn't have any pressure on him when he does take the puck away and I think that's a great way of creating an odd-man situation the other way."
The Blackhawks were spoiled for nearly a decade with Marian Hossa, who was one of the best at pickpocketing puck carriers in large part because he backchecked harder than anyone we've ever seen. Pavel Datsyuk is arguably the greatest to ever do it and Schmaltz remembers the time they both pickpocketed each other on one shift in a game during the 2014-15 season.
"Hossa was one of the best," Schmaltz said. "Probably my favorite was Datsyuk. I was looking up his stats one year in takeaways, he had like 144 or something in one year (2007-08), it's like, 'Holy cow.' That guy was the best at it though. I remember that one shift with Hossa and Datsyuk, where they went back and forth in the neutral zone like 10-feet apart, they were just picking each other back and forth. He's definitely one of the best and someone I followed closely."
Here's the play Schmaltz is referring to, which is a video clip every aspiring hockey player should have in their file book:
Pickpocketing has always been a part of Schmaltz's game, but he didn't realize it could become a dangerous weapon until college when he was at North Dakota. Now we're seeing him do it successfully at the NHL level against the best players in the world.
It's a real weapon the Blackhawks could use to their advantage. And you know what they say: great defense often leads to better offense.
"I've used it more and more in my game when I started playing with more pace both ways, coming back harder, playing defensively, and that just leads to good transition offense," Schmaltz said. "I don't really know when, probably my second year in college I figured out I was pretty good at it. It's a big part of our team game. We always harp on back pressure and coming back and stripping guys from behind and I enjoy doing it. Hopefully I can keep that up."