BUFFALO – One of the bigger forwards eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft is Paul Bittner.
Bittner, a 6-foot-4, 202-pound left wing, plays for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. He's in his third season with the Winterhawks after coming out of Crookston High School in Minnesota and he was listed as a first-round candidate by NHL Central Scouting Service in their 2015 "Players to Watch" list.
A forward his size will earn attention from NHL scouts regardless, but it's the other skills he has to go along with it that can make him a first-round pick.
"He's going to be huge. He'll be a 220-pound guy," John Williams of NHL Central Scouting said. "He's a smooth skater, really good hands and [can] make plays and good in tight along the wall. He protects the puck well and can retrieve pucks on the forecheck and obviously at that size the fact he's able to do those things, that's what people like. He's not a power forward in the classic sense of 200 penalty minutes. With his size and strength and reach, he's tough to handle."
Paul Bittner is listed as a first-round candidate by NHL CSS in their 2015 "Players to Watch" list. (Photo: Portland Winterhawks)
Bittner has shown those abilities this season in Portland, but at 18 years old those skills are something he's still learning how to use to his advantage.
"I don't think he realizes at times how big and strong he is," Winterhawks coach and general manager Jamie Kompon said. "He's got three guys hanging off him and he's still hanging onto the puck and he draws the penalty and he's still able to make a play for a great scoring chance. Those are the things that he's starting to find out about himself more and more that he has that ability to do that. I'm not saying all the time, but he's just got that ability to fend off people and to hang onto the puck and use his body and use his reach and use his size and strength."
Bittner got off to a slow start in Portland this season with six goals and three assists in his first 15 games, but he's come on since November and played at a point-per-game pace with 23 in 23 games since.
"I think it's just the maturation process a young player goes through," Kompon said. "There's a lot of hype and a lot of media attention on Paul coming into this season being a draft-eligible player having that late birthdate, so there were a lot of looks last year and the previous year on him and all eyes are on him at the start of the year.
"I think there's a lot of pressure that he put on himself to do things that maybe were a little uncharacteristic. That's a young player trying to do the right thing, but he's just putting too much pressure on himself and as the season's come on he's really started to, oh, just before Christmastime just taking a huge, huge step for us and our team."
In December, Bittner had six goals and five assists in 10 games and has started 2015 off with three goals and two assists in five games. What's most impressive about that is he's scored six goals and six assists in 11 games that linemate, and Winnipeg Jets 2013 second-round pick, Nic Petan missed winning gold for Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto.
"The space that Paul is able to create for Nic, whether it's by driving wide or whether it's middle lane drive, but he just creates more space, a little bit more time and space and Paul's smart enough to get into the open too," Kompon said. "So it goes hand in hand. The ability to play with Nic, and Nic finds players no matter who he's playing with, he finds players at the right time in the right place to give them the puck. He doesn't give it to them too early or too late.
"But with that being said, Paul is such a big guy he does create the space, he does create the attention, so it allows those type of players that like to hang onto the puck, whether it's Nic Petan or Oliver Bjorkstrand, the opportunity for another half-second or second with the puck."
Bittner admitted playing with Petan and Bjorkstrand makes his job a lot easier.
"All I have to do is break the puck out and give them the puck and then just go to the net," Bittner said. "If they need me to get the puck, I'll go get the puck and give it back to them. Maybe I'll take a few shots here and there and score a bit."
Scoring a bit hasn't been an issue for Bittner with the Winterhawks. He has 18 goals this season and had 22 goals last season in 63 games. Two seasons ago as a 16-year-old he had 12 goals in 45 games. For a player his size to be able to score goals, as well as retain the puck, there are other areas he still needs to work on to become a complete player.
"That consistency on the compete level. Everyone competes and they compete at their own level," Kompon said. "I don't say that he needs to run anyone through the end boards, but there's that side of it where it's the consistency time in and time out it's to compete in the heavy going and to compete throughout. And I think that that's one area where maybe he can be a [competitor] or be a little harder in those areas."
Kompon said Bittner's game has improved to the point where he's being given more responsibilities and that's something that will only make him a better pro in the future.
"It's one thing to say you made the NHL, it's another thing to say you can contribute in the NHL and I really believe that Paul is going to be able to get to the NHL and not only play, but contribute at the NHL level just because of his hockey sense, his ability to go to those tough areas [and] come up with those loose puck," Kompon said. "You always hear about they're coming back from junior and they've got to work on their defense, they've got to work on their play away from the puck. That's one thing we've really tried to stress with Paul, I know I have, just about his ability to play the 200-foot game and to be able to contribute at both ends of the ice and get that responsibility on the penalty kill and get that responsibility in late-game situations where you're going to be held accountable and you're going to be responsible in those areas to do the right things to get the win for us."