With Anisimov Out, Nick Schmaltz Now Key To Blackhawks Run

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In the weeks and days leading up to the NHL’s March 1st trade deadline I wrote on multiple occasions in regards to the critical importance of the Blackhawks adding center depth before the team’s imminent and demanding season-ending push for playoff seeding – a rigorous stretch that would merely serve as a precursor to the far more unforgiving and grueling playoff run.

At the time, even in full health, the Blackhawks were among the thinnest teams in all of hockey down the middle. And even this blatancy is putting the Blackhawks’ festering woes generously. A more honest interpretation would state that aside from Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks have been quite dreadful at the dot – as no other center on the roster boasts a face-off win percentage above 50%. Despite these lingering concerns, Stan Bowman opted rather to reinforce his depth at the wing and defensive positions prior to the March 1st deadline.

Despite owning a win percentage of just 45.1%, Artem Anisimov and his 416 face-off wins, 45 points, 17:15 of ice time and effectiveness bridging the oh-so-important gap between superstars Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane is far and away the Blackhawks most effective centerman not named Toews. After an Alex Radulov hit from behind sent the 28-year old pivot awkwardly into the boards in the closing seconds of the first period of last night’s game in Montreal, Anisimov, per reports, will not be available for perhaps the remainder of the Blackhawks stretch run due to an unspecified left leg injury.

Just when you thought the Blackhawks couldn’t get any more feeble at center, the unforgiving unpredictability that is NHL hockey manifested in the form of a 6’1, 200 lb Russian winger for the Montreal Canadiens and rendered the Blackhawks borderline hapless at the position just in time for the most important stretch of the season.

Filling Anisimov’s void at second line center will be breakout rookie Nick Schmaltz, who has come on particularly strong in past weeks skating on Toews’ wing alongside Richard Panik.

The conundrum facing the Blackhawks and their ability to hold onto first place in the Central Division rests in Schmaltz’s ability to adjust to the center position, a position the 21-year old has played only sporadically through his first 48 NHL games. While the coming weeks will certainly be a transitional period for Schmaltz where inevitable, fledgling mistakes will be made, comforting is the fact that in the periodic moments the rookie has centered Kane and Panarin this season, there has been instances of sheer, highlight reel, how-did-they-do-that brilliance between the trio.

As I just mentioned, Schmaltz rawness will be very evident at times so for this reason we must remain patient with the youngster. Most evidently, Schmaltz must elevate his game at the dot. The rookie won just 2 of 14 draws last night in Montreal and boasts a 30.1% (59 of 137) face-off win percentage on the season. The irony with Schmaltz’s issues at the dot is that, while struggling immensely to maintain the puck, he, Panarin and Kane still found a way to dominate possession and produce a number of grade-A scoring chances.

Just imagine if Schmaltz discovered a way to elevate his face-off win percentage to even near-adequate levels. The line’s already high possession numbers and subsequent scoring chances would be through the roof.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching Kane and Panarin, it’s that when this combination has an excess of high quality scoring chances, they capitalize on them more often than not. Further, while Anisimov is a fine center whose acquisition has worked wonders for both Panarin and Kane, quite frankly, the reality is the duo has never had a consistent centerman as naturally gifted as Schmaltz. The potential here could be cinematic.

The next three-to-four weeks for Nick Schmaltz will be a crash course learning how to center a top-six line at the NHL level. While it will be sure to give the very meticulous and historically impatient Joel Quenneville an abundance of headaches, the rest of us watching on with far-less judgmental eyes will have the opportunity of being subjected to All-Star Skills Competition-level eye-candy each night.

A rigorous learning curve it will be for Schmaltz and the Blackhawks, but who will notice as long as there’s potential for fireworks each time he’s on the ice with two of the game’s most prolific wingers.

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