Nick Schmaltz's game has made tremendous strides since he came back from Rockford. He's has the puck more. He's playing with more confidence. He's recognizing when to hold onto the puck and when to give it up.
Now to improve in one other category.
"I've been telling myself that for years now to shoot the puck and I still don't do it enough," Schmaltz said with a little smile. "Definitely shoot more and just play my game."
That, like everything else, will come with confidence more play but there's no doubt Schmaltz is making a bigger impact these past few weeks. Schmaltz celebrated his 21st birthday on Thursday with another multi-point night, this time a goal and an assist in the Blackhawks' 6-3 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. The rookie is brimming with confidence as part of the Blackhawks' surging top line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik and has nine points over his last seven games.
For Schmaltz, every lessoned learned this season, including the ones from Rockford, has been put to good use the past few weeks.
"We're just having the puck more. That's my game. I like to have the puck, hold onto it and make plays," Schmaltz said. "I'm making more plays off the rush, in the zone. I'm definitely more accustomed to playing this style and hopefully we can keep it going because I know that's how the Blackhawks have played in the past. And it only helps our team game when every line is playing well."
The Blackhawks have developed a better four-line rotation and a big part of that is the chemistry Schmaltz, Toews and Panik have formed on that top line. Panik said he's seen the change in Schmaltz lately.
"I think he just holds onto the puck more," Panik said. "He doesn't give it up quickly and that's what he's good at, just possession with the puck and making a space for him and he finds me or Toews."
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Coach Joel Quenneville was particularly complimentary of Schmaltz's game in Minnesota, which featured a "spectacular" pass to Toews on what was the captain's second goal of the night.
"The one thing we want him to do is play with the puck, play to his strengths and have it. Now he wants it," Quenneville said. "He had the puck a lot [on Thursday], like he did in Minnesota. I just think he's improved his pace and his strength in the puck area is coming along. For young guys, that's always an area where you get better over your first few years. But the quickness and confidence with the puck is definitely more noticeable."
Sure, Schmaltz should shoot more. In his time with the Blackhawks Schmaltz has had two or fewer shots in all but one game (Nov. 23 vs. the San Jose Sharks). When he has shot lately it's led to good results. Sometimes the decision to shoot is easy — please see the 2-on-1 with him and Toews to start Thursday's game — but the Blackhawks want to see him take a few more chances.
"You're a young guy and sometimes you feel the need to move the puck a little bit but he rolled that half wall early in the Minnesota game and we kept saying, ‘Shoot the puck, think shot, think shot,'" Quenneville said. "I think that will open up his other options and all of a sudden they're going to have to respect him coming out of those tight areas with a quick snap shot in that area. He can work and get better in that area knowing, get a little more comfortable with it, snapping it."
The Blackhawks have shown steady improvement this season. The same goes for Schmaltz. The start of the season was a little rough and not surprisingly so; the transition from college to pro isn't easy. But Schmaltz is now looking like he belongs here, and he wants to keep building.
"I feel I'm playing at a high level, where I need to be. But I can't get happy or complacent in my game," Schmaltz said. "I have to keep working and keep that level as high as possible."