Nick Schmaltz

Can Jeremy Colliton unlock Nick Schmaltz's full potential?

Can Jeremy Colliton unlock Nick Schmaltz's full potential?

With a coaching change comes a fresh start for everyone. A clean slate.

Nick Schmaltz, in particular, is somebody the Blackhawks were counting on to take that next step in his development, especially in a contract year, and he has struggled to do so early on.

He entered Thursday with one goal, seven assists and 20 shots on goal in 14 games. He had three points in his past 11 games after having four points in his first three. Because of those inconsistencies, Schmaltz found himself sitting in the press box for one of the three games during their most recent road trip.

Schmaltz is a key piece to the Blackhawks puzzle this season, considering the majority of their scoring has come from three players: Patrick Kane (12 goals), Alex DeBrincat (8) and Jonathan Toews (8).

In his NHL head coaching debut against the Carolina Hurricanes, Jeremy Colliton was seen on the bench having several conversations with Schmaltz and even put his arm around him during an in-game second period conversation, showing the personal relationship Colliton is hoping to develop with each of his players. By doing so, the Blackhawks are hoping to unlock Schmaltz's full potential.

"We haven’t had much time with any of these guys, so any opportunity we have to get them some feedback, we’re going to take," Colliton said. "That’s how we’re going to going to speed up this process of learning what we have to do to have success. I thought he got better as the game went on, like a lot of our guys did."

The message Colliton gave Schmaltz? Don't focus too much on the production and simplify it by playing the right way, which, in turn, will lead to the desired results.

"Overall, not thinking too much out there," Schmaltz said of what came out of those discussions. "When you think too much and try to be perfect and be in the right place, then you get thinking too much and you mess up even more. So he just said don't think out there, play hockey. We know how to play hockey and we'll teach as we go."

That includes the defensive side of things. He was on the ice for a defensive breakdown as he and the team looks to get acclimated on the fly to the different style Colliton wants to play in their own end.

"We wanted more of a man-on-man," Schmaltz explained. "It’s an adjustment. We’re used to the zone, but that’s not an excuse. Just stick with your man, and then when there’s a time when there’s a loose puck you can create a battle, that’s when you go swarm them and out-man them 2-on-1 or 3-on-2, whatever it may be."

Schmaltz noticeably had a shoot-first mentality after that, finishing the game with four shot attempts (two on goal) and one of them going into the net. It was his second goal of the season and first at even strength.

"Hopefully he can use it as a springboard," Colliton said. "I'm not so concerned about what his production is. I want him to work away from the puck, I want him to skate, I want him to be aggressive, on his toes, use his speed to pressure the opposition and create turnovers and him and his linemates will have more offensive opportunities."

Opportunities will lead to scoring chances, and the more Schmaltz helps generate those, the more he'll see results on the scoresheet.

Nick Schmaltz on the art of pickpocketing

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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."

Four takeaways: Blackhawks wrap up busy stretch with overtime loss to Oilers

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks wrap up busy stretch with overtime loss to Oilers

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Connor McDavid's overtime winner

The Blackhawks held McDavid off the scoresheet for 60 minutes. Usually that would be enough to get it done, as he's gone only one game this season without recording a point and it was a 3-0 loss.

But they couldn't keep him down in overtime, scoring the winner 53 seconds into it after burying a pass from Leon Draisaitl. McDavid has 17 points through 10 games and is surely going to be in the Art Ross Trophy discussion all season long.

2. Blackhawks get away with slow start

The Blackhawks, who were playing in their sixth game in nine days and the second of a back-to-back, were awarded three power-plays in the first period, which occurred within the opening 11 minutes.

Brent Seabrook cashed in on a 5-on-3 opportunity, converting on the Blackhawks' first shot on goal of the game at the 11:02 mark. They finished with four shots on goal in the first period, and got away with it being a 1-1 tie at intermission even though Zack Kassian scored with 1:34 remaining.

"I think if either team would’ve been A-plus tonight they would have had the puck a lot more," coach Joel Quenneville said. "But I still thought we were playing the game that was out there. Last period, last period and a half, I thought we were better. We were ordinary in the first period, but I thought we were OK the last two periods." 

3. Patrick Kane extends point streak

It didn't take too long for Kane to get back on the scoresheet. With a primary assist on Seabrook's goal, Kane has now picked up at least a point in 11 of 12 games this season and stretched his point streak to six games.

He trails Mikko Rantanen for the NHL lead in points with 18 total, and remains atop the leaderboard in goals (11).

4. Nick Schmaltz is a takeaway machine

It wouldn't be a complete takeaways piece without an actual takeaway reference, right? Going into Sunday's game, Schmaltz had 10 takeaways on the season. He had four against the Oilers, three of which came in the second period alone. It was a terrific defensive display.

His 14 takeaways trails Mark Scheifele by one for the league lead in that department.