Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz on the art of pickpocketing

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USA TODAY

Nick Schmaltz on the art of pickpocketing

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."

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: An inside look at the Blackhawks Hockey Ops department with Senior VP Al MacIsaac

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USA Today

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: An inside look at the Blackhawks Hockey Ops department with Senior VP Al MacIsaac

On the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle catches up with Senior VP of Hockey Operations, Al MacIsaac. They discuss the process the Blackhawks took in transforming the roster this off-season. MacIsaac is entering his 20th year with the Blackhawks and talks about the organizational changes over the last two decades. He also weighs in on the role analytics plays in evaluating current or potential Blackhawks and he explains why the team made a commitment to make its new practice facility the “gold standard” of the NHL.

0:45 – MacIsaac on changes within the Blackhawks organization in the last 20 years

4:00 – How the Blackhawks have added great depth this summer

5:25 – A good problem to have with two good goaltenders

6:23 – How the hockey ops meeting went at the end of last season

8:45 – How much the Blackhawks use and rely on analytics

10:27 – The importance of the Blackhawks strength and conditioning programs

12:24 – The planning behind Fifth Third Arena’s development

14:40 – The dynamic between hockey ops and business ops

16:37 – Agreements and disagreements within the hockey ops group

18:32 – MacIsaac’s longtime relationship with Mark Bernard

20:27 – Looking ahead to training camp and the regular season

22:42 – Tough decisions will need to be made when the season starts

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Blackhawks Talk Podcast

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Andrew Shaw on his career season in Montreal and adding toughness to Blackhawks

Andrew Shaw on his career season in Montreal and adding toughness to Blackhawks

Andrew Shaw had a terrific 2018-19 season with the Montreal Canadiens. He set a career high with 47 points (19 goals, 28 assists) despite missing 19 games due to injuries and averaged 15:55 of ice time, which was the highest of his NHL career.

When asked to explain why he believes he had the best offensive output of his career, Shaw pointed to one thing.

“Honestly I just think it was the hunger for the game," Shaw said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "I missed nine months with knee surgery and concussions. I battled back to get back to where I needed to be and just started having fun again. Maybe I’m bigger, stronger, older. I think I’ve been in situations in games so many times that you’re better at reacting to them so I think that maybe that has a little bit to do with it.”

The Blackhawks reacquired Shaw because they've lacked some jam in their game over the past couple seasons. And looking at the other moves GM Stan Bowman has made this summer, it's clear that's an area they prioritized.

Shaw noticed it too and he's excited to see how it'll all come together this coming season.

“I still have to be me," Shaw said. "I still have to go out there and work and compete and bring the energy I’ve always brought. I think it’s the intensity and the love of the game that pushes me to do that so I think it’s something that others feed off of. With a couple other guys they brought in, too, we got a little bit more grit, a little bit more defensive game. I think it’s going to be a really good year.”

Check out the interview in the video above.

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