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Ivan Demidov or Artyom Levshunov? Why best player — not positional need — should win out at No. 2 overall for Blackhawks

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The Chicago Blackhawks will own the No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, and it will likely come down to Ivan Demidov and Artyom Levshunov.

What makes the debate interesting is that the two players don't play the same position. One is an offensively-gifted forward and the other is a dependable all-around defenseman, which makes the decision unique for Chicago GM Kyle Davidson as he looks to identify his next core player.

Davidson's approach of taking the best available player no matter what has been his motto for years, and he has no plans to waver from that.

"We'll see how that weighs into it, but I think the main thing we're going to do is just rank the players and see where it falls," Davidson said on NBC Sports Chicago's draft lottery special. "Positionally, we'll take a look and see if it makes sense to go one direction or the other, but my philosophy has always been 'best player available' and we'll likely stick to that. But it'll be an interesting debate to have as we get closer to the draft."

Taking the best player available will rarely steer you in the wrong direction, and I always think back to the 2015 NHL Draft as an example why. 

Boston had back-to-back-to-back picks in the middle of the first round, holding the No. 13, 14 and 15 overall selections. At the time, the Bruins were rebuilding on the fly and were looking to reload quickly with that draft class.

Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci were still in the prime of their careers at age 29 and 28, respectively, and anchored the first- and second-line center positions. Zdeno Chara was 37 and figured to be nearing the end of the road.

So what did the Bruins do? They drafted defenseman Jakub Zboril, winger Jake DeBrusk and winger Zachary Senyshyn at No. 13, 14 and 15, respectively. Notice anything? None of them were centers.

Did the Bruins feel more inclined to add higher-end, immediate impact-type wingers to surround Bergeron and Krejci along with a defenseman to prepare for life after Chara? Deep down, you have to wonder whether it played some kind of role.

If that's the case, it didn't turn out particularly well for the Bruins by targeting specific needs. Zboril and Senyshyn have appeared in a combined 92 NHL games, and DeBrusk has eclipsed 45 points just once in seven years. They were surely expecting more from that trio.

Any idea who went immediately after Boston's run of picks at No. 16 overall to the New York Islanders? NHL All-Star Mathew Barzal. The next center off the board came four picks later: Two-time 60-point scorer and Selke Trophy candidate Joel Eriksson Ek.

All this to say: The Blackhawks would be wise to take the best available player and "worry" about what to do with the excess of players at certain positions down the road.

If you're drafting based on positional need, the Blackhawks should probably take Demidov.

Kevin Korchinski projects to be a top-pairing offensive defenseman, Alex Vlasic has solidified himself inside the Top 4, and Seth Jones isn't falling outside the Top 4 anytime soon. Plus, Ethan Del Mastro, Wyatt Kaiser, Isaak Phillips and Sam Rinzel are all progressing nicely in the pipeline. There won't be enough room for all of them.

Up front, Connor Bedard is the only slam-dunk foundational piece at this moment. Lukas Reichel, who was thought to be part of the next core, took a step back this season and has to prove he belongs. Frank Nazar flashed in his brief stint with the Blackhawks but it's still super early to draw concrete conclusions on the type of player he can be at the NHL level and whether he's a center or wing long-term. Same with Oliver Moore, who won't turn pro for at least one more year.

Colton Dach, Ryan Greene, Gavin Hayes, Roman Kantserov, Nick Lardis, Paul Ludwinski, Martin Misiak and Landon Slaggert are all forward prospects to get excited about but none of them are a sure thing.

Demidov would give the forward group a significant boost. Heck, he might be the best available player regardless and the Blackhawks would be checking off two boxes.

But if the Blackhawks feel Levshunov is the better player, they should absolutely take him.

Every perennial Stanley Cup contender needs a bonafide top defenseman that can play in all situations. Just look at the last decade and a half of champions and their No. 1 defensemen: Boston (Zdeno Chara), Chicago (Duncan Keith), Colorado (Cale Makar), Los Angeles (Drew Doughty), Pittsburgh (Kris Letang), St. Louis (Alex Pietrangelo), Tampa Bay (Victor Hedman) and Vegas (Pietrangelo). Four of those teams won it all multiple times.

It's not like the Blackhawks won't have another chance to shore up the forward crop down the road, either. They do have the No. 20 overall pick this year and two first-round selections in 2025 — Toronto's pick is Top 10 protected and could slide to 2026 — to continue adding quality forward prospects to the pool.

Plus, there's always free agency and trades, and it's much harder to acquire a top-pairing defenseman than it is to find a top-six forward. The Blackhawks will have options.

For what it's worth, Davidson doesn't believe the Blackhawks are particularly weaker at one position over the other. He feels good about where they're at.

"I think we’re heavy on defense, we’re heavy on forward," Davidson said. "We’ve done a really exciting job establishing depth in our prospect pool, and that’s important. We want a lot of guys coming up and competing for spots. This is about building a team. It’s always been about building a team and not just one player. Strength at those different positions just means that we can go best player.

"We can rank the board accordingly and then just go with what fits the best. Who is going to fit the Blackhawks the best? We’re really excited to dive into that process. A lot of the work is done, but now we can be a little more specific with our analysis and our rankings and our questions."

The only way positional need could come into play? Davidson replied: "As a tiebreaker, maybe.

"I think that depends on what you think our need is. If all things are equal, maybe you go for a certain position that you think you can help boost. But for the most part, we're going to rank them as hockey players and position is definitely a part of a discussion but it's not going to drive anything. 

"The talent of the player, the upside of the player, the draft is, it's one day that you get to acquire talent and you just want to get a player that you feel has the most talent for your system and you just go from there."

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