ALEC DOPP — As the Green Bay Gamblers’ top active points scorer (77) over the past two seasons and standout at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in the Czech Republic, Nick Schmaltz knows a thing or two about achievement at some of amateur hockey’s highest levels.
So when the 17-year-old Verona, Wisc. native got the opportunity to showcase his talent at the World Junior A Challenge in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia early last month, he wasted little time doing what’s made him a top prospect in next summer’s National Hockey League draft: Score points, and lots of them.
He also earned a little hardware along the way.
In four games at the challenge, Schmaltz led the way for Team USA with a team-high 12 points that shattered the event’s record, previously held by Kyle Turris in 2006 and Mike Connolly in 2007. He also matched the challenge’s record with a team-best eight assists — tying defenseman Ian Brady’s mark from last season — and shared with Karson Kuhlman the squad’s top goals mark (4).
For his unprecedented efforts, Schmaltz was named the challenge’s Most Valuable Player — an honor previously held by Turris, who now plays professionally for the Ottowa Senators, and Connolly, who suits up for the Colorado Avalanche.
“It shows the company he’s in,” said Gamblers head coach Derek Lalonde, who mentored Schmaltz in Nova Scotia as Team USA’s headmaster. “Nick has the ability to elevate his game, at times. And that was a situation where he elevated his game.”
Not every aspect of the challenge was positive for Schmaltz, however.
In Team USA’s lone exhibition match against a talented Canada West team, Schmaltz failed to tally a point, and his only contribution to his squad was of the negative type — spending two minutes in the penalty box for a minor violation midway through the final period. It was a rare point-less game for Schmaltz, who over his last three games with the Gamblers prior to the challenge compiled six of his 12 season points.
Lalonde pulled Schmaltz aside following the game for a chat.
“We talked about consistency and elevating his game throughout the tournament,” Lalonde said. “This is a situation where on was on him, especially after that first exhibition game. ‘Not good enough,’ I told him, ‘you’re better than this. Be mentally prepared, and go out and compete.’ And I give him credit for that — he did.”
Schmaltz responded soon after, and in a big way.
Facing Russia in his team’s first preliminary matchup, the University of North Dakota commit accounted for four of Team USA’s eight goals in the contest, two of which came off the end of his stick and two more in which he assisted goals scored by Kyle Connor and Shane Eiserman.
Schmaltz rode that momentum into his second preliminary bout, this time against Canada East — a game in which he contributed with two more assists as Team USA skated away with a 4-2 victory into the semifinals, where he left his mark on the tournament by scoring two goals and tabbing three assists in a 7-4 victory over Switzerland.
Collecting another assist in the challenge’s championship game against Russia — the same team his historic tournament run began with — Schmaltz again proved to be a key contributor. The difference between this matchup and previous ones, however, was that the gold medal was on the line.
“I really thrive off big-time moments,” Schmaltz said. “You always go out there and play hard, but when the pressure’s really on you kind of kick it to the next gear and prove what you are as a player.”
“I came into it with a team-minded goal, obviously, and win the gold,” Schmaltz said. “The U.S. has won four of the last five, so I came into it as a team-minded guy and wanted to win the gold. Obviously, when you’re team is playing so well it’s going to help your individual success.”
Delivering when it counted most, Schmaltz helped Team USA capture the event’s championship trophy for the fifth time in six years with a 4-1 victory over Russia.
“We truly believe our junior hockey in America, especially the USHL, that we have the best league in the world,” said Lalonde. “And this is a chance to showcase it. So there’s a little bit of pressure in that we’re representing our league and we should win the tournament.”
Playing alongside Buffalo Sabres 2012 second-round draft pick Connor Hurley and numerous other NHL prospects, Schmaltz certainly had enough talent around him to make his tournament a memorable one. And having Lalonde beside him during the good and not-so-good performances, offering guidance and direction whenever possible, made Schmaltz’ job at least a little bit easier.
“It was a really easy transition,” Schmaltz said. “We know all the coaches and they just let you play your game, so I felt comfortable and it was a lot easier transition than for most guys.”
For Lalonde, it wasn’t so much Schmaltz’s statistical output that impressed him most, but rather what his 17-year-old phenom was able to accomplish come crunch time.
“I think his brother went through a very similar path in his draft year,” Lalonde said of Nick’s older brother, Jordan, who now plays with the St. Louis Blues organization. “He elevated his game when it counted most, and that was down the stretch into the playoffs. And that’s the same for Nick, and that’s what scouts want to see: When the game is on the line, for him to elevate. And that’s what we’ll expect.”