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Combine offers final chance for prospect assessment as Blackhawks prepare for third pick

The Hawks picked Kane and Toews with their last two top-three picks. But two years before, they whiffed on Cam Barker. The goal this year is more of the former.

The Blackhawks will be making their first top-three selection since 2006 and 2007, when they landed franchise cornerstones Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
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If one of the candidates for the Blackhawks’ much-anticipated third overall pick doesn’t impress in the bench press or squat jump at next week’s NHL combine, then so be it — that’s only a minor concern.

The Hawks will be looking more closely at how he reacts to the disappointment.

“It’s not so much what they can actually do at the combine, but it’s where you think you can get them to in three years with the body type, the work ethic, the character,” Hawks amateur scouting director Mark Kelley told the Sun-Times on Thursday.

Of the 109 players invited to the combine, which runs Monday through Saturday in Buffalo, a larger-than-usual handful is up for consideration by the Hawks, who will likely choose from ‘‘the best of the rest’’ once the Devils and Rangers divvy up consensus top picks Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.

After the shock of the draft lottery in early April, Kelley cancelled a European scouting trip to watch the WHL playoffs, which gives a clue to some of the top targets: Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Kirby Dach and Peyton Krebs, plus Americans such as Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras and Cole Caufield.

The last time the Hawks picked third or higher was in 2007, and the combine’s importance has grown a lot since then, Kelley said. But they still can apply lessons from other recent positive combine impressions that led to draft-day successes.

Take for example Alex DeBrincat, the 39th pick in 2016.

“Alex was not in the upper echelon in the testing, but the way that he went about it, his character, the way he competed told us a lot about him,” Kelley said. “There was a lot of room for growth, [but] our assessment was that he was going to be willing.”

That assessment has panned out pretty well.

In between testing, the Hawks will interview more than 80 of the 109 combine invitees, not solely for the third overall choice but also for their second-round and pair of fourth-round picks. Each interview lasts 25 minutes and is attended by five or so Hawks scouts and executives, including Kelley and general manager Stan Bowman.

Usually, it goes well. Occasionally, a prospect will fail it. Either way, it helps make the draft board clearer.

“We know our locker room very well, so one of the questions we’ll ask ourselves afterward is, ‘Could they fit into our locker room?’ ” Kelley said. “And the other thing you’re trying to determine in their personality is are they an alpha, are they a follower, are they a leader?”

Definitively settling that draft board — a process the scouting department is already a “good ways through” — will happen sometime between the end of the combine and an all-staff meeting in the days before the draft, which will take place June 21-22 in Vancouver.

Of course, this year’s decision-making process has significantly higher stakes than in years past.

A lot has been made of the two players taken the last two times the Hawks were in this position: Patrick Kane (first overall in 2007) and Jonathan Toews (third overall in 2006). Less talked about is Cam Barker, the third overall choice in 2004, who went on to a significantly less successful career.

The third pick has an extremely high ceiling, and a relatively high floor, too. But not every prospect hits that towering, Kane-height ceiling. In 2015, Arizona selected Dylan Strome third, and while Strome showed a lot of promise this spring, he managed only seven goals in 48 games during his tenure with the Coyotes. One pick later, the Leafs nabbed insta-superstar Mitch Marner.

It’s the job of Kelley and his scouts to make sure the Hawks don’t pass up someone like Marner this year.