Turn pro or return to school? Blackhawks, Artyom Levshunov have a decision to make

The one thing we’ve already learned about the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2024 No. 2 draft pick Artyom Levshunov is he’s pretty easy going.

That’s something that struck Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson in his few interactions with him.

“He’s a big dude and he has a great smile,” Richardson said on Monday. “Every day for him is a just good day.”

Considering his personality, Levshunov seems as if he’ll be fine with whatever the Blackhawks want to do with him next season. He seemed to enjoy last season as a freshman at Michigan State. He also seems as if he’d be happy turning pro and spending even more time around the rink.

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Levshunov said when asked about next year at the draft. “First, I need to talk with my advisors and my family, and with the team, the Chicago Blackhawks. We’ll see.”

The Blackhawks have some thoughts. They just aren’t sharing publicly yet.

“I’ll probably talk with (agent) Dan Milstein and kind of give him our idea of what we think and what we believe is the best path, but we’ll let him hear that first,” Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson said at the draft.

That decision could come as early as this week. The Blackhawks will want to give Levshunov a direction as soon as possible and begin his development plan one way or another. Michigan State would certainly be eager to hear what the Blackhawks decide sooner than later, too.

So, what are the pros and cons of Levshunov signing and turning pro right away or delaying that for at least a year and having him return to college his sophomore year? Let’s dissect:

Reasons to return to college

• Levshunov played at a high level as an 18-year-old freshman in college hockey. That’s an accomplishment in itself, but there is something to dominating a league before moving onto another level. In the past, the Blackhawks have rushed prospects before they were ready to graduate a level. Kirby Dach was a great example of that. He could have likely benefitted from another year in the WHL. In Levshunov’s case, he could probably take some more steps in college hockey. With Levshunov included, Michigan State should be one of the top college hockey teams again, too. He’d be playing in big games and against other top prospects. Minnesota, which is in Michigan State’s conference, returns Blackhawks prospects Oliver Moore and Sam Rinzel as sophomores next season.

• Something Michigan State coach Adam Nightingale mentioned when asked about Levshunov’s path was the evidence of some pretty good NHL players spending two years in college hockey before moving on. That list includes Luke Hughes, Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Charlie McAvoy, Owen Power, Jake Sanderson and Zach Werenski.

As Nightingale explained, “(Levshunov’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.”

• College hockey doesn’t provide the number of games and reps the AHL would, but it would allow Levshunov to spend more time in the weight room. From what I’ve heard, Michigan State has a highly respected strength and conditioning program. Considering he arrived at school so late last year, he hasn’t spent a ton of time under that staff’s direction. Adding weight and muscle is probably more challenging when playing a pro schedule.

Blackhawks director of amateur scouting Mike Doneghey said at the draft about why he believes Levshunov’s potential is so big.

“The whole Belarusian aspect of it,” Doneghey said. “He showed up at Dan Milstein’s door and all he had was just his suitcase and clothes and they got him the equipment in Green Bay 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. In 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.”

• There’s been a lot of change in Levshunov’s life. He left home in Belarus and played in the USHL for the 2022-23 season. He went to college and played at Michigan State last season. If he were to stay at school for one more year, some stability might be nice.

“I’m of the opinion that Levshunov should go back to MSU for one more season,” The Athletic’s draft and prospect analyst Scott Wheeler said. “Though he’s pro-ready from a physical, skating and skill standpoint, his game is still quite green in some other areas — reads, decision making, defensive habits. I think he’s got another level to find in college and wouldn’t be in a rush. Maybe most importantly, though: He has only been in North America for two seasons and I think a little consistency without another move could really benefit him off the ice. Every time he has been settled in one place he has had to move. Let the kid grow up. Let him be with his teammates and experience college some more. Let Adam Nightingale coach him for a second season. I don’t think you need to rush him into the NHL. Owen Power, Luke Hughes, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy and Co. all did two years in college. David Jiricek and Simon Nemec didn’t jump right in. Plus, if he goes back he probably gets to bypass the AHL altogether.”

Reasons to turn pro right away

• The Blackhawks can eliminate the third party in his development and have him under their own guidance from the start. It’s something teams rarely get a chance to do. The Blackhawks can manage how much he plays, can spend additional time with him on and off the ice and even give him games off if needed. Plus, they don’t have to accelerate him to the NHL within his first two years like a player drafted from the CHL. The Blackhawks would have loved to send Kevin Korchinski to the AHL this past season if that was an option. It’s like Levshunov would spend the whole season or most of it in Rockford. He’d be a development priority for the IceHogs coach and the Blackhawks development staff.

• The Blackhawks could add Levshunov to an already large group of prospects going to be in Rockford next season. There’s a chance Korchinski could even be there considering how many veteran signings the Blackhawks have made in free agency. That whole group can develop together and potentially come up together.

• The Blackhawks aren’t likely concerned about Levshunov’s contract. If he signed for the 2023-24 season, they could still have the contract slide another year as long as he played fewer than 10 NHL games. It might also be to the Blackhawks’ advantage to have Levshunov burn the contract season and get him to his second deal sooner. It’s what they did with Lukas Reichel, and his second contract cost them a lot less than expected.

• Levshunov may still be able to dominate college hockey more, but he was still pretty good. There’s an argument to be made that he’s ready for the AHL. One of the biggest advantages of signing him would be to adapt him to a pro schedule and lifestyle at an earlier age. He would get more games. He’d practice more. He’d learn to manage his life away from the rink. That can often be a major adjustment for players. In Levshunov’s case, maybe less so. He has been away from home for two years now and spent one of those years on a college campus.

“His playoffs weren’t great, so there’s room to grow,” The Athletic’s draft and prospect analyst Corey Pronman said. “But he was also so good, I wonder if he’ll be going through the motions. People will argue two years, but guys who went back didn’t dominate like he did. He was really good, but wasn’t like a top-three defenseman in college, so I’m on the fence. I would prefer he’s in the AHL.”

• Levshunov can use some more weight and strength like nearly every prospect, but he does already have a sizeable frame. While playing against college players isn’t an easy feat, Levshunov would be going up against bigger and stronger players in the AHL.

• Just as there are examples of early-drafted defensemen returning to college or junior, there are some examples of players who immediately turned pro. The New Jersey Devils drafted Simon Nemec second in the 2022 draft, signed him and had him play in the AHL for a full season. Rasmus Dahlin went first in 2018 and immediately began playing in the NHL.

(Photo: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

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