A Blackhawks reporter's scouting report on Michigan State's Artyom Levshunov

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A Blackhawks reporter's scouting report on Michigan State's Artyom Levshunov

DETROIT — The Chicago Blackhawks may just end up with better odds at landing the No. 1 pick this year than they did a year ago.

The Blackhawks finished with the third-best odds in 2023. A year later, they’re aligned with the top odds with 30 games to go.

Whether the Blackhawks end up in 30th, 31st or 32nd place — the only three realistic slots they can finish as of now — they’ll be preparing to draft anywhere from first overall to fifth overall. As kind as the lottery balls were to the Blackhawks last year, there’s no guarantee that will be the same this year.

If the Blackhawks do win the lottery again, they’ll undoubtedly select Macklin Celebrini. He’s not as highly regarded as Connor Bedard was a year ago, but he’s the closest player to a sure star in the 2024 draft class. And if the Blackhawks don’t wind up with the top pick, well, there are a lot of directions they could go.

Over the coming months, I’m going to try to see in person some of the players the Blackhawks could draft in the first five picks. The series begins with defenseman Artyom Levshunov. I went to Detroit on Saturday and saw Levshunov and Michigan State face rival Michigan.

What to know about Levshunov

Levshunov is from Belarus and came to North America last season. He played with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL during the 2023-24 season and is a freshman at Michigan State this season. He’s a right-handed defenseman. He’s a big one at that. He’s 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He will be one of the younger draft-eligible players this year. He just turned 18 on Oct. 28.

The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranks Levshunov as the fifth-best prospect in the draft class and Scott Wheeler has him as the second.

First impressions

I had read plenty about Levshunov before Saturday’s game. Wheeler especially did a great profile on him. I knew he was big and strong, but his size and strength were still what immediately jumped out about him. He does everything with some power behind it. His passes are hard. He shoots hard. He hits hard. He’s a force around the net.

That all said, there’s still a gracefulness about him. Despite his size, he moves smoothly on the ice and can easily get around. You can see why he’s projected to be a No. 1 defenseman. In Saturday’s game, he played about 25 minutes. If there’s a concern about him, it is more in the defensive zone, but he has gotten better in that area and seems to have the all-around tools to continue to improve.

Video

Here are some plays and attributes that stood out about Levshunov from Saturday’s game.

Levshunov didn’t carry the puck a ton against Michigan. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he does do is he often quickly moves the puck and moves it ahead. The Spartans were able to create offensive chances a few times Saturday because his passes from the defensive zone bypassed a layer or two of the forecheck and gave them an offensive advantage. Like here:

This is an example of Levshunov’s skating ability. He defends by moving forward instead of giving up the blue line.

Levshunov didn’t have a point on the night, but he has plenty of offensive ability. In 30 games this season, he has eight goals and 20 assists. He had a couple good looks against Michigan and was probably robbed on this one.

Michigan probably made Levshunov look a little better on this play by taking a lot of time, but he still gets credit for breaking up a two-on-one chance.

This is simply an example of Levshunov’s size and strength as he puts a Michigan player into the boards.

Finally, this was probably Levshunov’s worst moment of the game. Blackhawks prospect Frank Nazar got the best of him on this move. Levshunov did lift Nazar’s stick at the end to limit the quality of the scoring chance.

Conversation with Michigan State coach Adam Nightingale

What’s impressed you about Levshunov and how he’s evolved this year?

He has size and physicality to his game. He’s got a big-time poise with the puck. I just think his willingness to learn and and he’s still growing, but to play both ends of the rink. I think when we’re talking about defensemen, that’s one of the hardest things with young talent and D is obviously you want them to be involved but also the importance and value in defending, and he does. You look at how many plays he ends with his physicality. You’re talking about a guy that teams are looking at taking that high, you want to be able to play him 25 minutes a night, and he’s one of those guys.

Were you able to trust him early or how has that come on?

Pretty early on he played a fair amount. But I think you’re talking about a young player, so he’s got to play through some mistakes, and our job is to coach them and hold them accountable, but that’s kind of how you learn and grow. In practice, you can see him improving every single day, extremely hard worker and committed kid. If you watch him now,  you’re pretty impressed with his growth.

He’s still one of the younger players in this draft. Where does his development need to go? What’s the next step for him?

I think just staying on this path. When we do scoring chances, he leads us in the positives every single game. I know plus-minus isn’t a great stat, but he’s plus-27 and tops in the country. He’s 17 just turning 18. I just think that position takes longer than others, so I think just continuing down that path of maturing his game.

What’s he like off the ice adapting to college and even North America still? 

He loves it here. He’s got a smile on his face every day. Obviously. He was here last year, so second year in North America. He’s doing great in the classroom. He had like a 3.7 last semester. His professors love him. The amount of reps he’s getting just in the English language and culture, his English is really good. He found a Russian church in town that he goes to, so that’s cool, and it’s all on his own. There’s a lady that goes to church there that’s like 50 years old, and she picks him up. He’s got a really cool personality and he’s dove into the community. Yesterday, we had a recruit in and I was walking through the rink with him, and we had sled hockey and wheelchair hockey going and our guys are out there and he was one of the guys out there with them. He’s done an unbelievable job of diving into the community. I think he loves it. He goes to the basketball games.

What do NHL teams ask about him when they’re around? 

Just the normal stuff. I think he’s met with pretty much every team. They’re in here all the time, and I think they all kind of leave with a smile on their face. He’s an appreciative kid. He’s an engaging kid. He’s passionate about hockey big time. But he also knows those teams and knows who’s on the roster and asks them questions about players. So, I think they enjoy it.

The Blackhawks have been around?

Yep, yeah.

Where he could fit with the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have a need pretty much everywhere in their rebuild still. Defense is the one position they’re probably ahead of others, but that’s mostly on the left side. An elite right-handed defenseman could make sense. They have Seth Jones on the right side for many years to come. They’re hoping Sam Rinzel pans out. Levshunov is more of a certainty than Rinzel. Levshunov is probably more of a true No. 1 defenseman than Kevin Korchinski. Korchinski has a high offensive ceiling, but his defensive game has a long way to go.

NHL timeline

Levshunov probably returns to Michigan State for another season. Nightingale thought that was probable, too.

“I think you look at the history of college defenseman, and the high-end, guys, the common theme, they all played two years,” Nightingale said. “You look at Cale Makar, two years, Zach Werenski, two years, Noah Hanifin, two years, Charlie McAvoy, two years, Quinn Hughes, two years, Luke Hughes, two years, Owen Power, two years. Those are all guys who played two years at his position. He’s got the physical attributes, and I’m not saying he couldn’t play, it’s just you’re hopping into the best league in the world. And in that position, you really got to be as close to polished as you can.”

Hanifin spent just one year in college, but you get his point.

(Photo: Michael Miller / ISI Photos/Getty Images)