How hockey veteran helped Blackhawks' Schmaltz ramp up his game
Before the Blackhawks scattered to the slopes and shores for their bye week, no player on the team was hotter than Nick Schmaltz.
Over the past 16 games, the speedy winger was tearing it up with 8 goals and 8 assists, and showing fans, coaches and opponents alike how far his game has come in his second NHL season.
Fans may not remember, but just 370 days ago Schmaltz was nearing the end of his six-week run in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs. Schmaltz was sent down because coach Joel Quenneville wanted him to grow his offensive game and not be afraid to shoot when the opportunity presented itself.
Getting demoted can be deflating, but Schmaltz's game reached a new level, thanks in part to fellow Wisconsin-ite Jake Dowell.
"Great guy. Been through a lot," said Schmaltz, who had just 1 goal and 3 assists with the Hawks when he got the news he'd be sent to the IceHogs. "He really helped me out."
When Schmaltz arrived in Rockford, Dowell immediately took him under his wing. They had worked out together the previous summer, and despite an 11-year age difference and personalities like night and day, they clicked right away.
"You're sitting in a hotel room and you can be a little bit lonely," Dowell said in a phone interview on Thursday. "You think about being there and where else you want to be, and it can play mind games with you. I wanted to make sure he was doing all right off ice … and make sure he was in good spirits."
Dowell, who is playing in Austria this season, was a fifth-round pick of the Blackhawks in 2004 and played 79 of his 157 NHL games for the Hawks in 2010-11. He played 66 games for an IceHogs squad that won just 25 times last season.
"We jokingly -- but not that jokingly -- told him that he was going to have to score a couple goals a game for us to win," Dowell said.
Schmaltz didn't quite do that, but he did score 6 times in 12 games and saw his confidence soar as the weeks went on.
Schmaltz's first game back with the Hawks was on Jan. 15, 2017 and it wasn't long before everyone noticed that this wasn't the same player. A week later, he found himself playing with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik, which has helped spark Toews' second-half resurgence.
"You're coming in your first year, you're not sure what to expect," said Patrick Kane. "He was a different player coming back from the AHL."
When Schmaltz arrived at training camp in September, he wowed coaches even more and ended up centering Kane's line in the Hawks' jaw-dropping 10-1 victory over Pittsburgh in the season opener. Schmaltz hit a roadbump soon after, though, suffering an upper-body injury that cost him five games.
Just like most of the team, Schmaltz struggled upon his return. The catalyst to this amazing stretch came when Quenneville finally moved Schmaltz to wing. This gave the Madison, Wisconsin native less responsibility and more freedom to create and produce.
Of course, it never hurts to be playing with one of the best players in the game in Kane.
"We think the game at a similar level," Schmaltz said. "We're always looking for each other, cutting back and creating time and space for each other. It's really easy playing with him.
"Each and every game I'm gaining more confidence with the puck and knowing I can make those high-level plays."
Learning from what Kane does talent-wise is one thing, but his impressive work ethic also rubs off on Schmaltz and the younger Hawks. Kane and Schmaltz often walk into the dressing room together after spending an extra 20, 30 or even 40 minutes on the ice.
"It helps when your best players are the hardest workers," Schmaltz said. "They've had so much success and they're still doing it."
No matter how Schmaltz's career plays out -- and make no mistake, he has the potential to be a superstar in this league -- he will no doubt look back upon that short stint in the AHL with a certain fondness.
"You take a step back and realize you're only 20 years old and you've got a lot of career ahead of you," Schmaltz said. "Take it as a learning experience and work your butt off."
And that's exactly what he did, thanks in large part to a journeyman forward who lent a supportive ear and was a great sounding board for a young player trying to find his way.
"I saw right away that he's got awesome, awesome skill and he can fly," Dowell said. "I've been in the NHL and back to the AHL, and I know it's important for guys to have the right mindset and play the game the right way. ...
"That's what I tried to help him with -- to make sure he knew what the priorities were to work on to prove that he deserved to be back in Chicago.
"The faster you learn that and do it, the faster you'll be out of there."