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Bittner having fun during his best season in Cleveland

Blue Jackets' 2015 second-round pick finding his game

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The first thing you notice about Paul Bittner is the mustache. 

Curled upward on each end like Rollie FIngers' famous 'stache, the "muzzy" has helped Bittner become a fan favorite with the Cleveland Monsters of the AHL. 

"There's no product in here. You might want to write that down," Bittner said with a mock seriousness after a recent Monsters game.  

"A lot of my teammates the past two years don't know me without a mustache," he added. "They all see me as a mustache guy. They don't really know what I look like without it. It would be almost weird for some of the guys in the locker room to see me without it." 

Another thing Bittner is becoming known for is his play with the Monsters, the Blue Jackets' top minor league affiliate. In 30 games this year - he's missed a handful of games with injury, a constant theme in life for the 2015 second-round pick of the Jackets - he has five goals and 15 assists for 20 points while posting a plus-8 rating, best among Monsters forwards. 

And most importantly, he's having fun. The mustache is a big part of that, as is the laugh that comes easily when talking to Bittner.

For Bittner, fun and improved play seem to go hand-in-hand. 

"This year more than most, I know all these guys in the locker room now, and (John Madden) being my coach the last three years, it's a very comfortable feeling here," Bittner said. "You start to enjoy it. ... (Assistant coach Steve McCarthy) even tells me, 'Bitts, just have fun out there. You play your best game when you're having fun.'" 

But the reality is hockey hasn't always been fun for Bittner. Two seasons ago, he made the choice to step away from the team midway through his first full professional season. It was a disaster of a campaign, with zero goals, just three assists in an injury-plagued 31 games, and dealing with all that while trying to live up to his early draft choice after a standout career with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL - where he played with Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand - was a lot to bear. 

Bittner needed to find himself again and did during his sabbatical. Being away from the daily rigors of pro hockey reminded him of the days of skating on the rink in his backyard with his dad, and the drive to play that game every day returned. 

"My first year with stepping away from the game a bit, I didn't really know if I wanted to play hockey," he said. "It took myself being away, and I knew this is what I want to do, and I'm getting the opportunity to show what I can do this season." 

Bittner was back with the Monsters a year ago and had nine goals and 18 points in 52 games while dealing with a broken finger. Again, injuries have been a common theme - he missed most of his final junior season of 2015-16 with hip surgery, he had a sports hernia and a concussion his first pro season, and even this year he was out about a month with a torn ligament in his knee. 

In past years, those setbacks might frustrate Bittner. Now 22, the winger has a bit more perspective. 

"He's made huge strides," Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark said. "When you're dealing with young athletes, the trajectory where they want to be - everybody thinks it's a straight line. 'I'll play this year here, next year there, and I'll be in the NHL at some point.' That happens with very, very few guys. 

"There's always ups and downs, but to his credit this year, he's had some injuries, but he's made strides each year. He's been getting better and better." 

Bittner said his improved play this year is a big credit to his offseason conditioning program. He checks in at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, so size is an asset, but Bittner knows his skating in tight spaces has to keep getting better and better for him to make the next step. 

"I'm a power forward," the Minnesota native said. "I'm a below the top of the circles kind of guy. I'm not going to be a Sonny Milano, dipsy-doodling at the blue lines, swinging all the way around the zone. I'm a meat and potatoes guy, Midwestern boy - get it down deep, grind it low and use my body and my size to get to the net and be a presence." 

For Clark, the biggest thing missing from Bittner's game is consistency, that thing coaches praise and the ability that separates longtime NHL players from those who come up just short. 

"He has so many tools," Clark said. "He's big, he has an unbelievable shot, he's one of the fastest guys on the ice. It's one of those things of putting all of his attributes together game in and game out. He can show it certain shifts and certain games. You say, 'Wow, he's really close,' and the other times it goes the other way. 

"That's probably the hardest thing you can do. He has so many great attributes to his game. It's just putting them all together." 

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