From Russia with luck: Blackhawks hoping to hit the jackpot in draft lottery

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Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin had seven goals and 13 assists in 41 games with Frolunda this past season. | Getty

It’ll be a little after 2:30 a.m. in Moscow when the results of the NHL Draft Lottery start trickling in, and a little after 4:30 a.m. when the top three spots are finally unveiled.

But a travel-weary Mark Kelley won’t be setting an alarm clock in his Moscow hotel. He won’t need to.

“I’m sure I’ll get a phone call from Stan [Bowman],” Kelley said.

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It has been a decade since Kelley, the Hawks’ chief scout, has had to sweat out a random generation of ping-pong balls. The Hawks have been picking in the latter part of the first round since 2009. Heck, in 2015 and 2016, they didn’t even have a first-round pick. It is the price of success, and a price the Hawks were happy to pay.

But Saturday night, Bowman in Toronto and Hawks fans everywhere will be crossing their fingers in hopes that the balls bounce their way after a season in which very little did. The Hawks have a 6.5 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick in the draft and prized Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a breathtaking talent who could instantly fill the Hawks’ biggest need on the blue line. They’ll have a 20.4 percent chance of moving up into the top three. If they don’t, they’ll pick seventh, eighth, ninth or 10th.

And if you’re the superstitious sort, the last time the Hawks won the draft lottery, when they had an 8.1 percent chance and picked Patrick Kane, Kelley was in — wait for it — Russia in 2007.

“When the phone rang and I saw who was calling, I knew it right away,” Kelley said. “But I’m not that superstitious.”

You can’t be in Kelley’s line of work. There’s far too much preparation involved to rely on good fortune. Kelley and his vast army of scouts have spent countless hours traveling North America and Europe to find the next generation of Hawks, and that doesn’t change whether the Hawks pick first or 31st. Even in 2015, when the Hawks’ first pick came late in the second round, Kelley and his staff had lengthy scouting reports compiled on Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Because, hey, you never know.

Most years, the Hawks have fewer than 100 names on their board. But they might need a bigger board this year because not only do they have their lottery pick, they acquired the Predators’ first-round pick — which will be somewhere between 24 and 31 — in the Ryan Hartman trade.

“The process isn’t different [this year] because you have to know both ends of the draft,” Kelley said from Russia, where he is scouting the under-18 world championships. “Usually, at this time, you have a better idea of where you’re picking.”

It has been awhile, but Kelley has sweated out the lottery before. His previous job was in the Penguins’ scouting department. In 2004, Pittsburgh lost the lottery, despite having the best odds, and lost Alex Ovechkin to the Capitals (Evgeni Malkin was a heck of a consolation prize at No. 2). And in 2005, the Penguins hit the biggest jackpot of all, winning the lottery and landing Sidney Crosby.

The swift-skating, puck-moving Dahlin could be that kind of generational talent. A couple of other top prospects — forwards Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina, among them — could step into an NHL lineup right away, too. But even if the Hawks don’t win the lottery, Kelley believes they will get a terrific prospect.

“It’s a good draft,” Kelley said. “You’ve always got four or five players that separate themselves, but it’s a strong draft after that. After you get through the first 30 or 40 players, all drafts are the same. The strength of a draft is in the first round.”

That said, the difference between, say, the second pick and the ninth pick is as significant as the difference between the ninth pick and the 28th pick. Winning the lottery, or at least leaping into the top three, fast-tracks the whole process. It is highly unlikely the eighth or ninth pick in the draft will play professional hockey next season.

“You never know; you can’t discount that,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “They say that there’s a lot of good players in this year’s draft. Getting a player at that number is going to be a good opportunity for our scouts. There’s some excitement in that area.”

Once the Hawks know where they’ll be picking, they’ll start assessing which players will be available. That’s where all the scouting over the last couple of years comes into play, with a more intense vetting taking place at the draft combine in Buffalo at the end of May. There’ll be interviews, character assessments, physical evaluations and all sorts of player parsing.

“Bottom line is, we’re trying to draft players that are going to play for the Blackhawks,” Quenneville said. “And if not, they’re going to become valuable assets that can help the team compete.”

And the ultimate value of this year’s top pick will be determined Saturday night. Well, Sunday morning in Moscow.

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