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When the Coyotes came off the ice after a season-opening, 4-3 shootout win in New Jersey on Oct. 13, there were plenty of things to celebrate. Offseason acquisition Matt Dumba opened the scoring. Sean Durzi looked like a capable power-play quarterback. Logan Cooley had two assists — one of the dazzling variety on the game-tying goal — and Arizona’s shootout participants turned in a perfect performance.
None of those things would have been possible without Nick Schmaltz, who was arguably the best player on the ice that night.
“He was excellent, especially in the third period,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said. “He was above [opponents]. He reloaded quickly. He won battles and his goal is all him. That doesn’t happen if he doesn’t recover that puck — that loose-puck battle he won at the blue line by cutting the hands of his opponent [Michael McLeod], winning that loose puck and giving the puck to Durzi who kept the puck in and after, we made a series of good plays.
“Our first goal on the power play, exactly the same. Two or three loose pucks and him and [Barrett Hayton] recovered those loose pucks, won those battles and allowed us to take that shot where we scored. [The goal is] the highlight but the real plays are those loose-puck recoveries.”
Here’s the sequence that Tourigny is referencing that led to the game-tying goal.
Schmaltz has always teased enormous potential with his obvious puck skills and the speed that he generates through the neutral zone. There were also a few things that went underappreciated in his game, most notably his ability to track back on players by using that same speed, and then lift their sticks with his long reach and steal pucks.
The areas that had held critics back from offering even loftier praise were Schmaltz’s consistency, his will to win puck and wall battles, and his ability to stay on the ice for the vast majority of a season, which has only happened once since his breakout season with the Blackhawks in 2017-18.
Schmaltz is aware of the criticism, and he has worked on shoring up all of those areas.
“The injuries I’ve had have been unfortunate ones; weird plays that happen,” said Schmaltz, who played 63 games each of the past two seasons. “It’s hockey, it sucks, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Obviously, I want to play every game and be out there for the team.
“I try to do more maintenance stuff throughout the year, and throughout the years, I’ve learned how to keep the body feeling good, whether it’s stretching or core stuff or stuff with the hips. Early on, maybe I was doing more weightlifting and heavier stuff. Now I know what my body needs. I know how I need to be to feel strong. I don’t need to go in and squat 500 pounds. I think that style of training has come and gone. It’s a lot of core and lower body, hips stuff, making sure I take pain away from the groins and lower back and then a lot of band work.”
The band work in particular is something that GM Bill Armstrong mentioned during training camp as a way of giving the slighter-built Schmaltz more strength to win battles and withstand the rigors of the 82-game NHL schedule.
“I think you get a similar effect from bands but you can do more reps and you just don’t get as much strain on your body,” said the 6-foot Schmaltz, whose playing weight is 181 pounds. “With heavy weights, you’re at more risk for injury if you’re doing deadlifts or whatever. You can pull a back muscle or something like that. That’s stuff that you can control if you do band work.”
There is no questioning Schmaltz’s offensive production over the past two seasons. Playing primarily on a line with Clayton Keller, he amassed 117 points in 126 games; nearly a point-per-game clip. He has two goals and seven points in six games this season. The seven-year contract extension to which former GM John Chayka signed Schmaltz in 2019 no longer feels like an overpay.
But team officials have wondered if there is another level to the 27-year-old forward’s game. They wanted to see more consistency. They wanted to see more will and a greater compete-level in the hard areas. And yes, they wanted to see Schmaltz on the ice for more than three quarters of a season.
Schmaltz will have to keep accomplishing what he has accomplished early this season to satisfy the critics, but when you talk to his linemates you hear a detailed description of a more complete and more determined player.
“He’s so crafty and elusive and shifty out there that he’s hard to cover,” Hayton said. “He’s definitely a really underrated player in the league and I think it’s his smarts and his ability to read the space so well that separates him.
“One of the things that I think is definitely really underrated is just how good of a stick he has. That’s something I’ve always noticed and admired with him is his ability to get his stick on so many pucks and break up plays; even just little strips. I don’t know where he would rank in the league, but he definitely should be up there in terms of the little turnovers he creates, and stripping pucks off the forecheck and by tracking.”
Schmaltz’s chemistry with Keller is undeniable, and it had more than a little to do with the team’s refusal to shop Schmaltz at last year’s trade deadline, or at the NHL Draft last summer. The Keller-Schmaltz-and-eventually-Hayton line was one of the NHL’s top 10 point producers last season. When that line is set up in the offensive zone, Keller and Schmaltz’s trademark approach has become one of constant motion that makes it difficult to defend them. That only happens with two players who are capable of making plays at such a fast pace.
“Everyone creates offense a little bit differently,” Keller said. “Constant motion can maybe make some teams get interrupted in their coverage and then we can create space for one another. We try to set a lot of picks for each other as well, and then it’s just reading off of each other.
“There’s just some players that you read off of well. We’ve been playing together for a while now and you almost take it for granted, but I think it’s unique to have someone like that; somebody you work so well with. It’s hard to find that in the NHL so I’m thankful to be with a guy like Nick.”
Schmaltz believes that he is a more complete player than he was when he arrived in Arizona via trade for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini in November 2018. Schmaltz credits Tourigny for giving him more freedom to play his game. He credits new assistant coach Blaine Forsythe and the addition of Durzi for the power play’s ability to take a step forward. He credits Keller for complementing his skill set. He credits Hayton with creating space for both to operate. But he hesitates to label this early-season performance a sudden shift in approach.
“I think the last couple of years our work ethic away from the puck could maybe go unnoticed a little bit,” he said. “I think we really work at forechecking. For example, when we play LA, it’s not going to be about just carrying it through the neutral zone and creating an odd-man rush. You have to chip it in. You’re gonna have to go win puck battles and you’re gonna have to retrieve it and have good sticks.
“Evolving our games over the past few seasons has been important so we are able to play against different opponents night to night. Every team is different and some teams give a lot of time and space; some teams give none. You’ve got to be able to play in both of those games.”
Schmaltz insists that he doesn’t dwell too much on his numbers, but he does believe there is room for growth in his game.
“I’d like to even get better,” he said. “I think I can work on my one-on-one battles and win more pucks, but I’ve always loved to track guys and strip pucks and create odd-man rushes the other way. I think I’m doing it more consistently now, as opposed to some games where I would do it and some games I wouldn’t. I really tried to make that a mindset thing, just playing hard away from the puck.
“We want to be one of the better lines in the league. People may look at the Coyotes and be like, ‘Whatever, they’re just putting up good numbers on a bad team,’ but I think we can be really elite players. We want to prove that every night and compete against the best so we do everything we can to try to help our team win every night.”
Top photo of Nick Schmaltz via Getty Images
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