After year of adversity, Schmaltz eager to come home to face Blackhawks
The double dose of adversity handed to Nick Schmaltz late last year could have sent some professional athletes into a tailspin from which they may not have recovered.
First, Schmaltz was hit with the stunning news that the Blackhawks -- the team he grew up rooting for while growing up in Wisconsin -- had traded him to the Arizona Coyotes.
Then just over a month later, Schmaltz decided to have season-ending knee surgery.
Instead of cursing his luck, Schmaltz attacked his rehab with such vigor that GM John Chayka rewarded his young forward with a seven-year, $40.95 million contract last March.
"What I saw was a kid that was really eager to get back to the game he loves," said Chayka, who acquired Schmaltz in exchange for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini. "He's really dedicated to his teammates and his team. That rehab process really showed a lot. He came out of it stronger than ever."
Now, Schmaltz is ready to show Chicago just how far he's come when the Coyotes invade the United Center on Sunday.
"I'm excited," said Schmaltz, who leads Arizona with 5 goals and 15 assists and will square off against his former team for the first time. "I loved playing at home when I was here. It's a great atmosphere. It's a fun building to play in and I've got a lot of friends on the other side.
"At the same time, it's a big game for us. It'll be fun."
Not so fun was getting the news that he'd been traded last November. Schmaltz admitted the move shocked him, but it also helped that he was headed to a squad that included former teammates Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Schmaltz racked up 5 goals and 9 assists in 17 games after the trade, but kept having issues with his knee. The nagging pain wouldn't go away, so he finally had it checked out.
The doctors gave him two options: Play through it or have surgery.
It wasn't easy, but Schmaltz elected for Option B.
"I thought doing it right away and then having a full summer to train and be ready for the start of the season was the right play," Schmaltz said.
The long, arduous rehab included a six-week stay in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of specialist Bill Knowles. While his teammates were doing everything they could to earn a playoff berth, Schmaltz was thousands of miles away and spending 3-4 hours a day in the gym and in the pool.
But in the long run, it was all worth it.
"The strides I made in those six weeks were crazy," said Schmaltz, who was taken 20th overall by the Hawks in 2014 and had a 21-goal, 31-assist campaign for them in 2017-18. "It was good to get away a little bit and just focus on myself and focus on recovering day by day."
Schmaltz charged out of the gates this season with 4 goals and 11 assists in the first 17 games. He's slowed down a bit lately, but Arizona (17-10-4) continues to win regardless and is in second place in the Pacific Division.
Just like last season, Arizona continues to be a stingy, defensive-minded team, so the Coyotes aren't overly reliant on one player to produce offensively. Schmaltz's biggest contributions often come on the power play, which ranks 11th at 19.6 percent.
"He's a one-man entry for us," said Chayka, who admitted Schmaltz's absence late last season may have cost his team a playoff berth. "And he can make plays at the half-wall, he's got that great vision and got a great one-timer too. We're a good defensive team and had good goal-tending, but we just fell short on the goal-scoring side (last season).
"He's a guy that not only creates for himself, but makes others better on the ice too. So we definitely missed him."
As for the trade, it seems to be pretty even thus far. Chayka is thrilled to have acquired what he called a "game-breaker" in Schmaltz, while the Hawks have to be pleased with the stability Strome (6G, 14A) has brought to the lineup.
In the end, Chayka definitely hopes the move works out for all parties involved.
"I'm a well-wisher," he said. "It doesn't hurt us if a player does well. I'm always rooting for those guys. ... I think it was a good trade and both teams are benefiting. Ultimately, that's why trades are made.
"I know Dylan as a player and I think it was a really good fit for him. The style of play seems to lend well to his game. He's doing well and we're happy for him. Then we've got Nick -- he's doing well and we're happy as well.
"So far, so good for everybody."
• Twitter: @johndietzdh
Scouting reportScouting report
Blackhawks vs. Arizona Coyotes, 6 p.m. at United Center
TV: NBCSCH • Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: Sunday's game will close out a four-game road trip for Arizona, which beat Columbus 4-2, Philadelphia 3-1 and lost to Pittsburgh 2-0. The Coyotes, who have 10 players with 5 or more goals, are 17-10-4 and just 1 point behind first-place Edmonton in the Pacific Division. ... Just like last season, the Coyotes play a stingy, defensive game. They've allowed 2 or fewer goals in 11 of the last 13 games and are second in the league at 2.26 goals-allowed per game. Goalie Darcy Kuemper (12-6-2) ranks second in save percentage (.937) and goals-against average (1.92). ... Former Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz is the leading scorer with 20 points (5G, 15A), but he has just 1 goal and 1 assist in the last nine games. Conor Garland has the most goals with 11. Garland is a fifth-round pick from 2015 in his second NHL season. ... Hawks F Alex DeBrincat has goals in back-to-back games for the first time since Games 77-78 last season. ... Patrick Kane has played 21:25 or more in nine straight contests. His average over that time is 23:07.
Next: Vegas Golden Knights, 9 p.m. Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena
-- John Dietz