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Bitten gets second opportunity at a first impression

Forward prospect acquired after training camp last fall is participating in his first development camp with Minnesota

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

ST. PAUL -- When he was selected by the Montreal Canadiens on day two of the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo, Will Bitten was on the verge of living out a childhood dream.

An Ottawa native, Bitten's first language is French, and he had imagined a thousand times, scoring the game-winning goal or hoisting the Stanley Cup with the legendary Habs sweater flapping in the breeze.

He was about to live that dream.

Last fall, Bitten reported to Canadiens training camp ready to take the next step in his career. He was prepping to make the jump to pro hockey, as his time with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Ontario Hockey League had drawn to a close. His season was likely to be spent with Laval Rocket, the Canadiens' American Hockey League affiliate. He was just one step away from reaching the pinnacle of his hockey career when his phone rang and the trajectory of his life changed forever.

The day before the start of the NHL's regular-season opener, Bitten was traded to Minnesota in exchange for defenseman Gustav Olofsson. 

"Getting drafted by Montreal was so cool," Bitten said. "But when a GM trades for you because he really wants you, that means a lot.

"It was pretty exciting, actually, a new adventure. At first, it's hard getting traded, anybody can tell you that. But once we got going, we had a really good team and it was a lot of fun making the playoffs."

The good news for Bitten was that he wasn't a complete stranger to the organization. His brother, Sam, had participated in a pair of Minnesota development camps and had been with the club just days earlier in training camp as well.

One of his first calls after the trade call was to Sam to get as much information as he could about the team, the organization and the coaching staff.

"He was here last year, so when I called him, he was like, 'Oh no way, I went to camp, so I know all the guys,'" Bitten said. "The hockey world is so small though, I already knew a bunch of the guys from playing against them or playing for Team Canada. I got to fit in pretty quick."

Because Bitten did not participate in the Wild's training camp, he arrived in Iowa and had to prove himself to his new coaches. He started the year playing bottom-six minutes, but it didn't take long for his speed to be a game-changer. 

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Slowly but surely, Bitten started climbing up the depth chart. Eventually, he would land on the right wing next to Gerry Mayhew and Cal O'Reilly on Iowa's top line. 

Not bad for a 20-year-old playing his first year of pro hockey.

"In today's game, everybody can skate. And speed is his biggest attribute," said Iowa head coach Tim Army. "You've gotta be able to play at pace. He's quick, and when he's going, his speed has an impact on the game."

That speed made Bitten tough to play against. Whether he was chipping in offensively, killing penalties, or getting in on the forecheck, Bitten's wheels quickly earned him rope from Army and the Iowa coaching staff. 

But like any 20-year-old getting his feet wet in professional hockey, there were also bouts of inconsistency. Bitten would be outstanding for five or six games at a time, then he'd hit a dry spell and take a step back and the game would seem a bit too quick. 

It's almost as though his eyes would glaze over, which spawned "glazed donuts," the stretches of games where Bitten's game would fall off.

After falling into a lull, Army would scratch Bitten for a game, let him watch and get extra reps in practice, and without fail, he said, Bitten would jump back into the lineup next time out and be back to his old effective self.

He'd be that way for five or six games, then it'd be back to glazed donuts.

"We'd get late in the year and in the playoffs and we didn't have the luxury of sitting him out, we needed him in there," Army said. "So I would say to him, 'No glazed donuts. I went to all of the coffee shops in all of Des Moines and there's no glazed donuts being sold anywhere.' The message was to come and make an impact, and he'd always say, 'No glazed donuts, I'm ready to go.'

"Part of your growth as a 20-year-old is to come in as a second-year pro is to be able to come in and [play a high level] every night and be effective."

Bitten's speed will give him a chance to be an effective NHLer down the line, but it's his consistency -- and how he's able to develop that area of his game -- that will help decide when "down the line" will be.

This week's development camp in St. Paul provides Minnesota's coaches with their first real opportunity to see everything that Bitten brings to the table. Training camp in September will give Bitten a second chance to make a good first impression. 

If he can eliminate the glazed donuts and generate that consistency, there's no reason why Bitten can't put himself in the conversation to be a call-up guy at some point during the upcoming season.

"Obviously, you want to make the team [in Minnesota], so I'm coming in with that mindset that I want to make the team," Bitten said. "[Wild General Manager] Paul Fenton traded for me for a reason and I think if I come in and play my game I have a shot to be up here at some point this season."

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