NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Chicago Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson arrived for the NHL draft in Music City this week reflecting on the tear-down job he began conducting a summer ago by trading away Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach.
And that was before Davidson essentially completed the process by dealing away Patrick Kane to the New York Rangers in February. Then, the organization and longtime captain Jonathan Toews decided to part ways.
On Wednesday, the 34-year-old GM gets to begin building the Blackhawks back up again with the No. 1 pick, with which Chicago is expected to select 17-year-old Canadian sharp-shooting and playmaking center Connor Bedard.
“It feels so long ago, but the difficulty in some of those decisions is very present in my mind,” Davidson said Tuesday. “It’s heartening to see the development in some of those players that we acquired in the draft last year. And I feel we’re in a good spot moving forward.”
Davidson, like most GMs who have had the No. 1 pick, won’t divulge who he’s selecting. Still, he was more than eager to praise Bedard, who is being referred to as a generational talent and has drawn comparisons to Connor McDavid following consecutive 100-point seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats.
“Great player. Great person. I think everyone’s seen how he’s handled himself in the lead-up to this draft,” he said. “Obviously, a lot of attention. He’s shown a maturity beyond his years: 17 years old, but you’d never know it on how he’s handled things.”
Bedard, meantime, was trying not to look too far ahead or discuss the Blackhawks, including a chance to play alongside Taylor Hall (the No. 1 pick in 2010), who was acquired by Chicago a day earlier in a trade with Boston.
“Nothing’s happened yet,” said Bedard, the WHL’s first player to score 71 goals in 24 years, and whose 143 points were the most since 1995-96. “I take things day by day. And if they take me, that’ll be unbelievable. But we’ll see what happens.”
Beyond the near certainty of Bedard going first, there are several subplots to how the rest of the first round unfolds. The intrigue revolves around when Matvei Michkov — a forward who’s skilled but under contract to play in his native Russia through 2025-26 — is selected, and when the first defenseman goes off the board in what is a top-heavy class of forwards.
University of Michigan forward Adam Fantilli, only the third freshman to win college hockey’s Hobey Baker award as the nation’s top player, Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and USA Hockey’s William Smith are projected to round out the top four, with Michkov potentially in the mix.
Anaheim holds the second pick, followed by Columbus, San Jose and Montreal.
“Well, I don’t think there’s going to be any surprise at No. 1 … and then after that nobody knows,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “We’re going to do our list the way we see it no matter what. And if somebody wants to shock us and take somebody else No. 1, then we’ll take whoever is highest on our list.”
The Ducks, meanwhile, have been curiously silent. GM Pat Verbeek has declined to address reporters in the weeks leading up to the draft, and his first public comment won’t likely come until he steps to the microphone to announce Anaheim’s selection.
Michkov’s presence is the wild card of the proceedings. The 18-year-old has shown flashes of his playmaking brilliance, but mostly on tape the past two years because NHL teams have difficulty getting to watch him firsthand due to travel restrictions resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Nobody’s seen him. He’s a ghost,” said Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong, whose team holds two first-round picks at Nos. 6 and 12.
Even Michkov’s fellow prospects are curious.
“I guess I know as much as you guys, and I’ve never gotten to meet him,” Fantilli said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to what a team needs, and what a team wants.”
What everyone can mostly agree on is how the forward depth of this draft class is regarded as being superior to the defensive talent. This year’s draft has the potential of being the first to have the first blue-liner selected outside of the top five picks since 2003, when Ryan Suter went No. 7 to the Predators in a draft also held in Nashville.
Austria’s David Reinbacher is regarded as the top defensive prospect, though NHL Central Scouting chief Dan Marr predicted Quebec’s Etienne Morin will be the first to be selected.
And don’t rule out trades, with a majority of teams outside the top 10 seeking to move up in the draft order in what is described as one of the deeper offensively skilled draft classes since, perhaps, 2015, when Edmonton selected McDavid first overall and Buffalo followed with Jack Eichel.
The degree of difficulty of completing such a trade, however, is easier said than done.
“Every year, there’s all these rumors somebody’s trying to move up,” Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland said. “Does it happen occasionally? Yeah, it happens occasionally, but not very often.”
Davidson laughed upon being asked if anyone has expressed interest in the No. 1 pick.
“Nope,” he said.
Some 16 years after the Blackhawks selected Kane first overall in forming the foundation of a team that won three Stanley Cups over a six-year span from 2010 to ’15, Davidson gets a chance to add a new cornerstone.
“You don’t want to assume anything. But we feel pretty darn good about the type of player that we’ll be able to acquire first overall,” Davidson said, with Bedard awaiting his likely impending introduction.
AP Hockey Writers Stephen Whyno and Larry Lage, and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
John Wawrow, The Associated Press