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Chess moves: Coyotes’ Nick Schmaltz putting offense on display

Nick Schmaltz #8 of the Arizona Coyotes skates with the puck during the first period of the NHL game against the Vegas Golden Knights at Gila River Arena on October 10, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Golden Knights 4-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. —  If one had made a wish-list over the summer of what the Coyotes needed to get into the playoffs this year, certainly more offense would’ve had to be at the top of it.

The addition of Phil Kessel was certainly expected to help that pursuit. But while Nick Schmaltz’s name wasn’t talked about as a key offseason addition — seeing as how he was on the team last year — his emergence on the Coyotes has been just as good as adding a player.

The forward only got in 17 games for Arizona after a trade from Chicago in 2018-19 before missing the rest of the season due to injury. And with 33 games with the Coyotes now under his belt, Schmaltz has 28 points for Arizona — a little shy of a point per game.

“He just brings another element to our team,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “You’re always looking for that guy who can make something out of nothing. You figure you’ve got him and somehow he just comes out of a corner and finds those plays.

“Those elite guys can find players to put them in a Grade-A situation. Especially the last eight, nine games, he’s really found it.”

Schmaltz had 14 points the last 13 games and a three-game point streak going into Thursday’s game against Columbus. He assisted Derek Stepan on a game-winner on Monday in Edmonton and leads the Coyotes in both assists (10) and points (14).

“I think it’s like chess,” Tocchet said. “He knows when he’s going to get the puck. He knows what he’s going to do ahead of time. Sometimes you get a player, he gets [the puck], now he looks.

“[Schmaltz] kind of knows his next play before it happens.”

According to NaturalStatTrick, when Schmaltz is on the ice, the Coyotes get 59.62% of the high-danger scoring chances that occur. That’s the highest percentage of any player on the team. The Coyotes’ shooting percentage as a team is also the highest with Schmaltz on the ice.

“You’re always trying to improve on things,” Schmaltz said. “I think I can be a little bit better defensively and focus on faceoffs a little bit more. That’s a big key for puck possession, starting with the puck, especially in the offensive zone. But with the puck, I feel pretty good. I feel like I’m making good plays and still think I can shoot the puck a little bit more.”

That last item — shooting the puck more — was relayed to Tocchet, whose mannerisms following the question seemed to indicate he agreed. Tocchet then told an anecdote from the Calgary game on Tuesday in which, at one point, Schmaltz elected not to shoot on a good chance.

“He came up to me, he goes, ‘I know I should’ve shot that puck,'” Tocchet said. “But that’s something that, you know, if he shoots it another 10, 15% more, I think those are extra goals for him a year. For sure. Because he has a good shot.”

“He’s a high-end guy, right? He can make plays,” Tocchet later added. “You look at some plays he makes, ‘Wow!’ Sometimes you’ve got to be careful because now in your head, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I can make plays.’ But there’s some times when you’ve got to shoot the puck. … A rebound here and there, your buddy will get the goal. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to score on your shot. It’s kind of the next play.”

Whether he shoots more or not is something he can work on. The hard part is solved: he has the tools to create offense. That’s been evident in his ability to dish the puck to others and set up several key goals this season.

Offense is nice. And it’s just what the Coyotes needed.

“I think I settled in pretty well in Chicago and found my game a little bit,” Schmaltz said. “But I think the biggest thing is just playing consistent every night. I think there was games where I was good and games where I wasn’t. That’s my biggest thing right now is just trying to play the same game every night. That’s what you’ve got to do to be a good player in this league. Obviously it’s only been a month of the season, but hopefully I can keep up my play and not get too high or too low.”

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