Nick Schmaltz is leading the Coyotes, and proving John Chayka’s faith in him was warranted

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It’s fair to say John Chayka’s acquisition and subsequent signing of Nick Schmaltz to a seven-year, $40.95-million deal was a calculated risk. But less than one season into that contract, it looks like the risk is paying off.

Nick Schmaltz|Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The Arizona Coyotes have a top line at the moment consisting of Christian Dvorak between Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak that has been dubbed ‘The Chicago Mission Line’ because all three of them played at one time for the Under-16 youth hockey powerhouse.

There is indeed a significant Windy City influence in the desert these days, and it’s a big part of the reason why the Coyotes woke up Monday morning tied with the Edmonton Oilers for first place in Pacific Division. (All those who predicted before the season that would be the case one-third of the way through, proceed directly to the front of the class and collect your gold star.)

A big part of that is Schmaltz, who is quickly developing into the player GM John Chayka thought he was getting when he acquired Schmaltz from the Chicago Blackhawks one year ago for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini. To the immense relief and pleasure of Chayka, Schmaltz has rewarded him for the deal and for signing him to a seven-year deal worth $5.85-million per year.

Those are the kinds of deals that can sometimes get a GM fired, particularly when the player he traded away goes bonkers with the other team and goes from being an unproductive and unsteady player to scoring 51 points in 58 games with his new team, which is exactly what Strome did with the Blackhawks. That did not deter Chayka from signing Schmaltz to his contract extension while he was injured.

The confidence in Schmaltz, it turns out, was well placed. Not only does Schmaltz lead the Coyotes in scoring with 22 points in 32 games, he’s also scored three shootout winners (among four skills competition goals in total) to lead the league in that category.

“Nick was almost a point-per-game player for us when he came to us last season,” Chayka said. “He’s an elite, talented player and he’s exactly what we expected when we made that trade.”

It’s not as though the evidence was not there. After all, Schmaltz had an outstanding sophomore season with 21 goals and 52 points with the Blackhawks the season before he was dealt. But with Schmaltz commanding a salary of almost $6 million, the cap-crunched Blackhawks essentially had to give him to Arizona for uncertain futures and hope for the best. And that’s exactly what happened with Strome, who flourished in his new surroundings and has followed up last season with six goals and 20 points in 26 games. It’s one of those deals that could turn out to be a good one for both teams.

As Chayka went through the painful (and it was painful) process of building the Coyotes into a contender, he recognized pretty quickly that the roster was hugely short on NHL-caliber talent. That was not an issue with Schmaltz, who is supremely offensively gifted and will put up numbers when placed in a position to succeed. “He does things that very few guys on our team and the league can do,” Chayka said. “He’s a special player.”

There are some very real red flags when it comes to the Coyotes this season. They’re 29th in possession and they generate the fewest chances in the league at 5-on-5. Much of the success has come as the result of outstanding goaltending and the Coyotes’ ability to keep the quality chances against them low. So they’re perfectly content to keep the score close and low through 65 minutes, then go to the shootout and use the likes of Schmaltz and Conor Garland.

And Schmaltz is only 23 years old and just beginning his second contract, one that is actually back-loaded rather than front-loaded, a rarity in the NHL these days. Schmaltz is already giving pretty good value on the new deal and the Coyotes are counting on that contract becoming more of a bargain as he progresses through it.

“He’s physically just growing into his body now,” Chayka said. “And he’ll just keep getting better and better here. He’s been our offensive leader for sure.”

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