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updated: 10/2/2017 5:47 AM

Chicago Blackhawks' sophomore quartet looks to step up

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  • Chicago Blackhawks forward Nick Schmaltz carries the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets during a preseason NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.

    Chicago Blackhawks forward Nick Schmaltz carries the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets during a preseason NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.

  • Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Gustav Forsling during the third period of the Bruins 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in an NHL preseason hockey game in Boston, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.

    Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Gustav Forsling during the third period of the Bruins 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in an NHL preseason hockey game in Boston, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.

  • Chicago Blackhawks' Ryan Hartman during the third period of the Bruins 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in an NHL preseason hockey game in Boston, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.

    Chicago Blackhawks' Ryan Hartman during the third period of the Bruins 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in an NHL preseason hockey game in Boston, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.

  • Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Michal Kempny (6) and Boston Bruins' Riley Nash watch the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Boston on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

    Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Michal Kempny (6) and Boston Bruins' Riley Nash watch the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Boston on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

  • Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (48) and Chicago Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz (8) go for the puck in the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Chicago.

    Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (48) and Chicago Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz (8) go for the puck in the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Chicago.

 
 

Overwhelmed. Humbled. Shocked. Floored. Disturbed.

Pick any of these adjectives and it aptly describes how the Chicago Blackhawks' rookies felt during and after Nashville's first-round sweep of coach Joel Quenneville's team last April.

After a 50-win regular season, most experts believed a deep playoff run was on the horizon, but a perfect storm descended upon the Hawks and the off-season suddenly was a cold, stark reality.

In order for the Hawks to flip this narrative in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs -- assuming they qualify, of course -- certain players must either reinvent themselves or take their talent to a new level.

In Part II of our three-part series, we're going to focus on a quartet of second-year players: Forwards Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman and defensemen Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling.

Imagine if Schmaltz becomes a 20-goal, 60-point player, Hartman approaches 20 goals again on the third line, and Kempny and Forsling learn from last season's gaffes in the D-zone AND contribute offensively.

Quenneville would like to see them increase their ice time and take on more responsibility in Year 2.

"That's part of making the NHL," he said. "You get your foot in the door, it doesn't stop. You're always looking to improve, and you're always looking at better opportunities.

"Obviously we need everybody to make us a better team, and that consistency is what's going to make us a better team."

Of the four, Schmaltz has the potential to take the biggest leap. The 21-year-old, who scored 6 goals and registered 22 assists in 61 games last season, has centered Patrick Kane's line throughout training camp and looked completely at ease.

He's handling the puck with more skill, zooming into the offensive zone with more authority and unleashing his shot with increased accuracy and speed.

"I could go on and on about Schmaltzy's talent," Jonathan Toews said. "He's so relaxed with the puck out there. He's getting more and more deceptive. You see a lot of the little things that he's starting to do that even Kaner does.

"He's good at keeping his feet moving with the puck; he's got his head up and he's just got little feigns and little moves that back defenders off. … He's a great playmaker and a great shooter. Makes him very dangerous."

One good example of Schmaltz's growth came during a preseason game against Columbus at the United Center on Sept. 23. Appearing as if he was going to take the puck behind the Blue Jackets' net, Schmaltz instead blindly dumped it to a trailing Patrick Kane.

Kane's shot didn't find its mark, but the play showed why Schmaltz should be a force for years to come.

"Feel like the game's slowing down for me," Schmaltz said. "Just seeing plays and know what I'm doing with the puck before I get it. It feels good."

Kempny (2G, 6A, 56.3 Corsi in 50 games) and Forsling (2G, 3A, 48.5 Corsi in 38 games) are huge keys to the Hawks' back end. Both showed they were capable at times last season, but this year they must play a safer, smarter defensive game while chipping in offensively with crisp passes and the occasional goal.

Do all of that and it bodes extremely well for the Hawks. It's as simple as that.

As for Hartman, he surprised many pundits with a 19-goal rookie season. He probably will be on a line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Sharp/Alex DeBrincat to start the season, and he might get more of a look on the power play.

So 20 goals is certainly possible.

Then when April rolls around, Hartman, Schmaltz, Forsling and Kempny will need to have learned from last season's collapse against the Predators so they can play much bigger roles on a Stanley Cup contender.

"It gives us a lot of motivation, especially going out like that," Hartman said. "It gives us a lot of knowing what to expect.

"(We) want to come into the season full speed and full stride and try to have something to prove. It's a dangerous combination when you've got guys that are upset and feel like they need to prove something."

• Twitter: @johndietzdh

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