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Eye on the Future: Chicago Blackhawks Prospect Nick Schmaltz

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North Dakota's Nick Schmaltz was ranked inside the top 10 of our list of Top 100 NHL prospects last season. He showed tremendous promise and upside last season, as one would expect from a first round NHL Draft pick. But in our write-up last year, it was still acknowledged that even though Schmaltz had a lot of upside, he was still very much a work in progress.

A first round draft choice of the Blackhawks last summer, Schmaltz has smooth hands and excellent vision which has made him a reliable playmaker in his first season. He hasn't had as much success putting the puck in the net, but that should improve as he matures physically. His defensive play is still a work in progress, but has shown positive progression this year. Schmaltz has the talent to be a scorer at the pro level, but still needs time to reach that potential.

Now that he is back for his second season of college hockey, expectations are understandably higher. I took a closer look at Schmaltz as his North Dakota Fighting Hawks played two games against St. Cloud State last weekend to see if he's starting to reach those expectations.

Schmaltz is currently centering North Dakota's top line sandwiched between fellow first round draft pick Brock Boeser and senior Drake Caggiula. Schmaltz has a scoring line of 2-15-17 through 14 games. His fifteen assists is tied for the national lead in assists. He is also an impressive +19 on the season, which is the best +/- in the nation.

The first thing that stood out to me about Schmaltz compared to last year is that he has added a little bit of strength, especially in the lower body. That strength has allowed to become much faster, and a much more dangerous threat. He has always been an excellent stickhandler, and last year, he really had to rely on that to get around defenders because he wasn't quick enough to skate around them. This year, he has that extra step that allows him to put pressure on the defense with his speed. It also opens up a lot more space for him to maneuver because the opposing defense has to soften their gaps on him to respect that speed. Numerous times, he was able to gain zone entry with ease, then pull up high in the offense zone to start North Dakota's offensive attack.

Once he gets time and space in the offensive zone, that is where he can really shine. Schmaltz has great hands and vision and is a great passer. In Friday's game, he had three secondary assists, but they weren't cheap points. He made really nice plays to create opportunities that eventually led to goals.

That said, I think eventually the Blackhawks would like to see a little more production in the goal category from Schmaltz to become a more multi-dimensional offensive threat. His goal number is a little lower than it probably should be thanks to some bad luck. (What is his shooting percentage?) In the first period of Friday's game, he ripped a wrist shot that beat the goalie cleanly, but bounced off the goal pipe. That's not the first time, as Schmaltz has hit quite a few goal posts this season.

But a lot of the reason for the big disparity between goal and assist numbers for him is a matter of mentality. Right now, Schmaltz is always looking to make the extra pass, even if it isn't necessary. Sometimes it leads to beautiful goals, but too many times, he's passing up a higher percentage chance by shooting it in favor of making that highlight pass. He's not a great shooter by any means, but once he gets a little better with his decision making, he's putting himself in good enough position that he'll start scoring some goals.

There's not much concern about Schmaltz on the offensive end of the ice. Most of the questions surrounding him have been on the defensive end. He's never been a real high-energy player, which has led to critiques of his consistency and defensive play.

I thought he was much more consistently noticeable last weekend than he was last year. Some of that is out of necessity. Last year, with an older team, it was easier for Schmaltz to play a secondary role and kind of fade away at times. This year, Schmaltz is on the first line and his team is having a lot of trouble generating anything outside of the top unit. Schmaltz's line generated four out of North Dakota's five goals last weekend. His only bad period was the second period on Saturday and North Dakota got absolutely bombed that period. So there is a lot of pressure on Schmaltz's line to play well and produce, because if they don't, nobody else is picking up that slack right now.

On the defensive end, he's still a work in progress. North Dakota has started using him on the penalty kill this year, which is a positive sign because there's way that would have happened last year. That's gotten him to play with a little more of a defensive mindset.

Overall, there's no denying the offensive talents that Schmaltz has, and he's showing enough progression from last year to this year to be excited about his future. He still projects as a top six playmaker at the NHL level. When he'll be ready for the NHL is still the question. Schmaltz will be expected to handle a big share of the scoring for Team USA at the upcoming World Junior Championships with Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin likely unavailable for the United States. How he performs at that tournament, combined with what he shows in the second half of the season will likely be the difference between him signing with the Blackhawks this coming summer and returning to North Dakota for a third season.