How the Blackhawks nearly landed both Artyom Levshunov, Ivan Demidov: NHL Draft takeaways

LAS VEGAS — The assumption was always that the Blackhawks would draft either Artyom Levshunov or Ivan Demidov with the No. 2 pick in the 2024 NHL Draft.

Well, it was nearly both. 

Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson sought Demidov so badly along with Levshunov that he was aggressively working the phones to gain a second top-five pick. He almost found a seller, too.

A league source said the Blackhawks offered their 2025 first-round pick unprotected and a 2025 second-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for their 2024 No. 4 pick. The source described the deal as “close” to happening.

Ultimately, as The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported, the Blue Jackets were too high on center Cayden Lindstrom and turned down the Blackhawks’ offer. The Blackhawks’ dream of pairing Levshunov with Demidov faded away with it. 

Lindstrom went to the Blue Jackets, and Demidov went a pick later to the Montreal Canadiens.

Blackhawks amateur scouting director Mike Doneghey is always looking for a market inefficiency in a prospect’s career trajectory, something that could mean untapped potential and a higher ceiling. Think back to 2022, when the Blackhawks took 6-foot-8 Finnish center Riku Tohila in the seventh round. Doneghey rather amusingly referred to him as “naive and from a small town,” saying he was well behind the learning curve. Doneghey saw that as a positive because it meant there was so much more room for Tohila to grow. 

With Levshunov, Doneghey found something similar in a much higher-end prospect, which was very exciting for a scout. As good as Levshunov was at Michigan State, he’s still just starting to realize what he can be. 

“It’s the whole Belarusian aspect of it,” Doneghey said. “He showed up at (agent) Dan Milstein’s door and all he had was just his suitcase and clothes. They got him the equipment in Green Bay (of the USHL) and everything else. I just think he’s so far behind the curve, even though he’s a big guy. You see him and he’s got long arms and long legs. It’s just, he hasn’t trained in North America. (Last) August, he goes to Michigan State, so he didn’t even have a college training session like most kids do. I just think his ceiling is high-end.”

Did the Blackhawks need more size within their forward prospect group? From the outside, most experts seemed to think so after drafting the likes of Connor Bedard, Frank Nazar, Oliver Moore, Paul Ludwisnki and Roman Kantserov in the first few rounds over the last two years.

But the Blackhawks have often disagreed. Doneghey hinted Friday he’s been reading what has been written, though. Asked whether the size of the 6-foot-2 Sacha Boisvert attracted the Blackhawks to draft him at 18, Doneghey replied with a smile, “That’s what you guys say.”

Doneghey continued: “He’s a big body down the middle that gets around the ice really well that has a good scoring touch. He can play in a shutdown role. He’s on a power play in Muskegon. I’m sure he’ll be that at North Dakota at some point. He just has a good overall skill package in a variety of roles.”

The Blackhawks, of course, have had a few centers come through North Dakota in the past. Troy Murray and Jonathan Toews are the most notable ones. 

I didn’t think about that, to be honest,” Davidson said when asked about Boisvert being a big center like Toews. “That’s funny. No, we weren’t trying to recreate Jonathan Toews. We won’t put that on him. 

“But shout out to Troy Murray too, former North Dakota alum. He was asking myself and Norm Maciver if we needed any help before the draft, and I joked to him and I texted back that we’re not taking any players that are going to North Dakota, and lo and behold, we take someone going to North Dakota. Maybe Troy influenced things a little bit there. But, no, it’s a great path, North Dakota is a great program, and obviously Jonathan experienced a ton of success coming out of there. And so if Sacha can bottle a fraction of that, we’d be pretty excited.”

The Blackhawks certainly added forward size in the draft. After Boisvert, Marek Vanacker (27th) is 6-0, John Mustard (67th) is 6-1, AJ Spellacy (72nd) is 6-3, Jack Pridham (92nd) is 6-1 and Joel Svensson (138th) is 6-1. 

But more than the size, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler immediately noticed the speed the Blackhawks had drafted. Wheeler described Mustard, Spellacy and Pridham as possibly the fastest players in the entire draft. When you add that to Nazar, Moore and Ludwinski, that’s a ton of speed. 

Spallacy approved. 

“I think speed kills,” Spellacy said. “So if you have speed as a team, it’s going to be a lot easier to win games and beat the other team. So, I think there’s more than just the speed but when you have a lot of speed, it’s easy to win games if you have a great team.”

The Blackhawks hope so.

Bedard is still very much the face of the Blackhawks. The team even had him announce the Levshunov pick, which is particularly amusing considering Levshunov is only three months younger than Bedard, who turns 19 on July 17. But eventually, the novelty of Bedard will wear off — in a good way. He’ll always be a star and the face of the franchise and likely one of the faces of the league. But as of the end of this weekend, the league calendar flips to the next year. So he won’t be a rookie. He won’t be visiting every NHL city for the first time, with all the extra attention that goes with it. He’ll just be another high-profile NHL veteran. 

In other words, there’ll be a little less hoopla around him everywhere he goes, which will be nice for someone who’s probably done more media and more events than any player in the league.

“Yeah, it is (nice) for sure,” he said after winning the Calder Trophy, putting a capstone on that wild first year. “It’s obviously a special year, achieving a lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. But then you kind of just want to be with the rest of the pack. I don’t want every time I score a goal or whatever (for it to be) a big deal because I’m the youngest kid or whatever. Just having that behind you and getting to move forward and learn. I feel like I learned a lot from last year, so hopefully I can take that into the next season.”

The Blackhawks took a USHL player in the first round for the third straight season, with Muskegon’s Boisvert joining Moore and Nazar (the U.S. National Team Development Program team competes in the USHL). They also drafted Waterloo’s Mustard in the third round on Saturday, making it seven USHL picks overall in Davidson’s three drafts. Levshunov also played a year in the USHL in Green Bay before going to Michigan State. 

On top of that, Macklin Celebrini played a year with the USHL’s Chicago Steel, and Steel forward Michael Hage went 21st to the Canadiens. 

“It’s a great path for players,” Davidson said. “It’s sort of unique, too. We took a Canadian from Quebec that went to the USHL, and then a Belarusian that went to the USHL. So, non-traditional paths, I would say. It’s a traditional path for college but not for people from maybe Quebec or Belarus to go through that path.

“But it’s a great league. It’s gotten far better, I think, the last couple of years. And so I think it’s a great opportunity for young players to develop and get ready for the college ranks, or if they decide to go major-junior or turn pro out of the USHL, I believe it’s a great path for players and it’s a really high quality of junior hockey.

“We love the league, and I think it shows league-wide that really good players are coming out of that league. So it wasn’t the reason why we went with those players. We have to like the players first rather than the league, but it is a great league.”

The sweetest words in the hockey language might be “we have a trade to announce.” It’s one of the things that makes draft weekend so much fun — the pure chaos of the time crunch between the draft and the start of free agency on July 1 and the mass exodus of every Canadian to their lake cottages on July 2. The NHL and Sphere even cooked up a “trade horn” and an eye-popping graphic for when a trade went down.

But the only trades in Round 1 involved numbers, not names. Davidson had an interesting theory as to why: There just isn’t any time. With only a few minutes between picks, it’s difficult to navigate the labyrinthine world of NHL contracts and the salary cap. 

“My hunch is that it doesn’t feel like a ton of time,” he said. “Especially with players (having) no-trade clauses, the extra steps that you probably have to take with (NHL) Central Registry. It’s such a breakneck pace down there that even just putting numbers of picks on a paper and getting it in, it feels like you’re extremely rushed.”

Not that it stopped Davidson from getting those pick trades in. Davidson packaged his two remaining second-rounders to send to Carolina to move up to No. 27, allowing him to pick Vanacker. Back in the 2022 draft, Davidson went from zero picks to three first-rounders via trades (two of them involved significant players in Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach). The Blackhawks have made a whopping eight first-round picks in Davidson’s three drafts. That’s the most for any team in a three-draft span since Montreal had 10 from 1974-76. In just two years, Davidson dramatically restocked the pipeline with high-end prospects. 

That’s one of the reasons Davidson has been stockpiling second- and third-round picks in trade-deadline deals every year. 

“It never ceases to amaze me,” Doneghey said. “We start the daytime with none in Montreal and two last year and only two this year, and he finds a way to get myself and our staff the players that we like, the players that we want. He has that ability to package things and go get what we want.”

Fortunately, the excitement picked up considerably on Day 2 of this year’s draft, as the Mikhail Sergachev and Kevin Hayes trades went off less than a half hour into the second round, kicking off a slew of deals around the league. 

(Photo of Artyom Levshunov and Ivan Demidov: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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