Imagine being a 20-year-old rookie like Nick Schmaltz was this fall, entering the Blackhawks' locker room and making the team out of camp. In one way it's a dream come true. In another way, you're joining a venerable group of players, some of whom have won multiple Stanley Cups among other hardware.
That can be a little daunting.
"Definitely high expectations coming in," Schmaltz said. "You want to make sure you're helping out the team right away but you don't want to try to do too much."
In those first few months, perhaps Schmaltz was trying to do too much. He was going through the first-year growing pains, and he's not the first to deal with them. But as this season has progressed Schmaltz has gained confidence and regained his game.
Being physically ready for the NHL is one thing. Having the right mental approach and confidence to be there is another, and in those two departments Schmaltz has made the greatest strides. Prior to the Blackhawks' break Schmaltz, playing on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik, was on a five-game point streak (two goals and seven assists). The rookie, who admits the first stay with the Blackhawks was a little bit overwhelming, is certainly more confident this time around.
"Obviously you want to be a part of the team and to contribute offensively," Schmaltz said. "I want to play well away from the puck, too, play well defensively and make sure I'm responsible out there. I'm just trying to play both sides of the puck and contribute as much as I can."
It's not unusual for a young player to need time to adjust to the NHL, especially coming straight from college. It can be a heck of a leap, and Schmaltz said the Blackhawks' veteran players helped him feel more at ease. Coach Joel Quenneville said Schmaltz has handled "the big hurdle" of college-to-pro well.
"There's definitely a learning curve when you first come into the NHL. Expectations are higher for some guys than others. But him getting down and getting some games [in Rockford], getting more confident offensively and with the puck, he added a little pace and another dimension to his game, we like how he's playing during this recent stretch," Quenneville said. "We like how he's handled himself in a situation where, as the season's gone on here, he's gone to a different level."
Schmaltz's 12-game stay with Rockford was a chance to get more pro experience but it was mainly an opportunity to regain his game, as well as the confidence to play it. The initial experience of joining the Blackhawks was eye-opening and a little daunting but Schmaltz now looks like he belongs here.
"It's definitely tough coming in, but the more and more you get to know the guys they make you feel so comfortable in there," Schmaltz said. "Once you settle down you can focus on playing your game and you're not trying to worry about who you're with, how historic the locker room and the franchise is. And I think I've done a better job of that lately."