ROCKFORD – Tyler Motte likes how his game was coming around. That game that showed great promise and power with the Blackhawks before he suffered his lower-body injury in November seems to be returning with the Rockford IceHogs.
"The pace and style's a little different but I'm getting at top speed more often, using my speed in certain situations," said Motte following the IceHogs' skate on Friday morning. "I'm getting open for my linemates to make plays, to get the puck on my tape or for me to get it on theirs. The confidence is definitely coming back, if not back already."
Hence the point of the Rockford assignment not just for him, but for fellow forward Nick Schmaltz. The two, who had their ups and downs in their first few months with the Blackhawks, are currently linemates (with Spencer Abbott) in Rockford. And while it was disappointing to leave Chicago, both know the work they do with the IceHogs now will benefit them going forward.
"I'm playing a lot of minutes and my offensive game has been improving and I've been making plays and playing well with the puck," said Schmaltz, who has six goals and three assists in 12 games with Rockford. "Hopefully I can keep that going and keep building my confidence."
Rockford coach Ted Dent said both have looked good with the IceHogs.
"[Schmaltz] has been good. He's handling the puck and he's playing in all situations – we're using him on the penalty kill as well sometimes. He looks comfortable," Dent said. "[Motte's] got a really good power move to the net on the right and left-wing side, because he's not afraid to go to the net and protect the puck, which is one of his strengths."
Motte has three goals and an assist in four games with the IceHogs. Anyone who saw Motte in his first few NHL games saw his power move to the net, one where he would out-hustle defenders and score a few goals in the process. But after returning from his injury, Motte didn't have that same drive.
"I don't think anyone comes back 100 percent right away after any injury but the injury itself can't be an excuse," said Motte, who added that he now feels as close to 100 percent as he has all season. "I don't think I played my best when I came back, was put in a little different role when I did come back, didn't see quite the same opportunities I had before. But again there's no excuse for not playing to the best of my ability and contribute more when I was up there."
Schmaltz was healthy in his time in Chicago but still struggled to find consistency. With the IceHogs he's getting the minutes, responsibilities and confidence, and he's doing it with regular linemates. He and Abbott were together for several games before Motte joined them, and Schmaltz and Motte played together at development camps in the past.
"It's just a little bit of predictability," Schmaltz said. "You know what your line mates are going to do. They're two high-end skill players so that makes my job easier. Motte can shoot the puck and Abbs is a good play-making guy you can feed off. We have a little bit of everything on the line."
Guys like Motte and Schmaltz are there to improve their on-ice game but their mental approach to the situation is just as critical. Dent said both forwards have the right attitude about why they're there.
"Most of the time they start in Rockford and then they go to Chicago. It's different with these two and we haven't had that in a long time. So mentally, it's harder than anything else," he said. "It's just the right mindset. But they've been coached well and told the right things: go to Rockford, have the right attitude, play a lot of minutes, be the man, get your confidence back. And at some point in the near future I'm sure they'll go back up."
Getting that first taste of the NHL and then being reassigned can be a tough adjustment. Motte and Schmaltz are like any other player: being in the NHL is ultimately what they want. Right now, the stint in Rockford is what they need.
"Obviously, eventually I want to be back. That's where everyone wants to play," Schmaltz said. "I'll keep working hard, keep building my game. In the long run, I'll look back and it and I think this will benefit me."