What if the Blackhawks hadn’t landed on Conor Bedard?

The Blackhawks just a few weeks ago looked like they took a non-stop elevator ride to the league’s basement.

They were the team to catch in the race for the worst record in the league, and it seemed as though they were holding everyone back. And then, they win, they win again, they win again, they lose and they win again. With four wins in five games, the Blackhawks have jumped two teams in the point standings.

The Blackhawks could go on to yet another losing slide as they begin hitting the road for extended periods in the coming weeks. Maybe they don’t. There are five teams that have a realistic chance of having the worst points percentage, and anyone’s guess is that they will end up there with about half a season left. And as a reminder, the worst team in the league is not guaranteed to be a top pick, just a pick from the top three.

Like everyone in the mix, the Blackhawks are hoping for the opportunity to draft Conor Bedard with the No. 1 pick. He immediately changes direction for the Blackhawks on and off the ice. Bedard’s arrival will accelerate general manager Kyle Davidson’s rebuilding plan. Davidson will start putting talent around Bedard next season. The Blackhawks may not be a Stanley Cup contender in 2023-24, but things are going to pick up speed getting there.

But what if the Blackhawks didn’t finish with Bedard? Even with the worst record, lottery balls can easily bounce back in someone else’s favor. The Blackhawks can draft a second, third, or fourth draft. While this isn’t the end of the world given how good he is at the top of the 2023 draft, Bedard still stands above everyone else. No doubt those lower teams would be disappointed if they lost to him.

Davidson may be pinching four-leaf clovers, rosary beads and whatever else might bring him luck that comes up in the lottery draft, but he also knows he has to be willing to adapt if Bédard isn’t in the cards. And if Bedard isn’t, the first line of action will be to decide who will be drafted. The Blackhawks sit high in the centers of Adam Fantelli and Leo Carlson. They’re also tracking Matvey Michkov with scouts in Russia, but they’d rather not have to wait for his late arrival.

I turned to Athletic Draft and draft prospect Scott Wheeler for his thoughts on what would happen if the Blackhawks were unable to select Bedard.

Adam Fantili shoots the ball towards the USA goalkeeper during the 2023 World Junior Championships. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

“I think Fantilli will play in the NHL next year and he will make an impact,” Wheeler said. “Carlson No. But certainly not to the extent Bedard will. … And yes, Meshkov is still the guy at that threshold for me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to surpass No. 4.”

Depending on who the Blackhawks are backing, Davidson’s plan is likely to change. If it’s Fantilli, Davidson might start building around it in a similar fashion as if it were Bedard. This meant bringing in some of the best attacking players to play for Fantilli. If it’s Carlson, the Blackhawks may have to wait another year for his arrival. If Michkov is the best player available, well, then Davidson will have to get Danny Wirtz’s blessing to recruit someone who may not be in Chicago for several years. It can be a difficult conversation. The Blackhawks need someone to market it too.

Something Davidson seemed to realize when he was hired was that he needed to draft some key talent in this three-year window. He began this process with three first-round and two second-round picks in 2022. He has two more first-round and two more second-round picks in each of the following two drafts. This number can grow depending on what happens at the trade deadline. Davidson certainly has enough high draft picks with at least seven first-round and six second-round picks in that three-year span to where you’d think the Blackhawks would start to get ahead if they hit enough players.

Depth of talent aside, Davidson knows he needs some superstars. He’s hopeful that 2022 No. 7 seed Kevin Korczynski can become the No. 1 defenseman of the future. If Davidson can’t recruit Bédard, he could still settle for a future first-choice spot in Fantilli, Carlsson or top winger in Michkov, but he’ll still need more, and that could come in the form of another top-five draft pick in 2024.

The Blackhawks as an organization understand what they are putting their fans through this season. Fans have come out to the United Center more than expected, but the Blackhawks don’t want to test that loyalty too often and want to start rebuilding sooner rather than later. The truth is, next season could be just as bad. The Blackhawks could potentially be without Patrick Keane and Jonathan Towes and may need to get creative financially just to get the most out of it. The Blackhawks may have a few promising prospects, perhaps Korchinski and Lukas Reichel, on their NHL roster, but they still aren’t built to win. Davidson would probably not pursue major free agents, and perhaps even Alex DeBrincat, until the following summer.

If you’re wondering about the 2024 draft, Chicago Steel forward Macklin Celebrini and U.S. National Team Development Program forward Cole Eiserman are two early candidates.

“Celebrini, it’s obviously early but it’s more on a Fantilli/Michkov level than on a Bedard level,” Wheeler said.

Davidson will want to start prioritizing getting some of his own NHL prospects over the next few seasons. Korchinski and Reichel are the standouts, but Alex Vlasic should also be ready for next season as well. Cole Guttman could make a push from Rockford, too. Ethan Del Mastro, Wyatt Keizer, Nolan Allen, and Colton Dash are among the players expected to turn pros next season. Another 2022 first-round draft pick, Frank Nazar, may return to Michigan for another season due to his injury as a freshman, but he’s another one to watch.

Davidson will have a lot of moving parts to manage over the next six months. This will start with the trade deadline and Kane and Toews futures contracts. The draft lottery will follow and Davidson will learn whether he will have an easy job of drafting Bedard in the month of June or will have to plan for someone else. The Blackhawks draft situation will determine which path Davidson takes in free agency, offseason, etc.

In other words, there isn’t exactly one plan if the Blackhawks don’t land Bedard. Of course, all of this would obviously be much simpler if the Blackhawks won the lottery and were drafted. If not, the Blackhawks will have to get agile and adjust their strategy. There are other ways to succeed without Bedard. It’s just more complicated.

(Top photo by Conor Bedard: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

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