Young forward has matured, wants to make it to the NHL

by: COURTESY OF BRYAN HEIM - Paul Bittner, from Crookston, Minn., gives the Winterhawks some size on a forward line loaded with quickness and skill, and Bittner, 17, figures to have an even bigger impact on the team in years to come.His linemate and coach say the same thing about second-year forward Paul Bittner of the Portland Winterhawks: He’s good now, he’ll only get better, and he could be great in the Western Hockey League.

“I think, as a younger guy, only 17, and as a bigger guy (6-4, nearly 210 pounds), he’s still finding his game within his body,” says Nic Petan, one of the WHL’s best players for two years now. “He could be a top guy in this league next year, for sure. He’s doing the right things.”

“He’s really good,” says Mike Johnston, Portland’s general manager and coach. “He’s really growing into his body. He’s gained weight and strength. He has very good intelligence on the ice. He’s really had to get to the right scoring areas and bear down on scoring chances.

“Next year, I think he’ll be a 30- to 40-goal guy. He’ll be a really tough player to handle at 18 and 19. He’s going to be a big, big guy when he fills out. He’ll be an elite player.”

It’s all high praise, made even higher with the expectation that Bittner, one of the many U.S.-born players on the Portland roster, hailing from Crookston, Minn., could be a first-round NHL draft pick in June 2015.

Bittner isn’t likely to let such hype go to his head.

“It’s every kid’s dream to be scouted by the NHL,” he says. “It’s exciting, for sure. You can’t think the game will be easy, or you won’t play well.”

The junior hockey game hasn’t been easy, yet, for Bittner. He had 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points in 45 games as a 16-year-old rookie. In 19 playoff games, he went scoreless. Yep, no points. But, he had good company. Petan, in his 16-year-old rookie season, had zero points in 22 playoff games.

“You’re playing a limited role, and not a big factor, but I didn’t think about it at all,” Petan says. “It didn’t set me back at all. I knew it would be different the next year.”

Bittner adds: “My role was to get the puck in (the offensive zone), and I wasn’t needed to score.”

Then, after a 22-27-49 second season in which he played alongside Petan and Brendan Leipsic, Bittner went the first two playoff games against Vancouver without scoring. Neither Johnston nor his teammates were concerned.

“It sometimes goes that way,” Leipsic said then. “He gets to the net. Nic and I do the things on the outside. I thought he played a lot better (in Game 2), with his scoring chances going to the net. I think he’ll be all right. He’s a streaky scorer.”

“He’s still a very good player; I don’t care how many points he doesn’t have,” Johnston said.

Sure enough, Bittner scored a goal in Game 3 against Vancouver and notched an assist in Game 4 as the Hawks swept the Giants, setting up the Western Conference semifinal series against Victoria that starts this weekend in Portland.

“It didn’t bother me,” Bittner says, of his playoff scoring drought. “It was nice to be rewarded. I was playing pretty good, and then I got rewarded for my hard work.”

Bittner played with Petan and Leipsic last season, with Ty Rattie absent. This year, he joined them on the first line about midway through the season. His points started to increase.

“It’s never been a doubt in my mind playing with Nic and Leiper that we weren’t going to score,” he says. “I never worried about scoring, more than I would about bringing the physicality and other things.”

Bittner says he has matured this season and play “has come natural — I know what I have to do in a game.”

He’s the big guy on the line with Petan and Leipsic, who are all about quickness and skill. Bittner moves well — “I do a good job of keeping up, but it’s hard because they’re quick and fast in acceleration,” he says — and he has good hands around the net. He sees himself as a power forward, but he needs to continue to work on his physicality — and gain more weight, maybe another 10 pounds by next season.

Bittner patterns himself after power forwards in the NHL, including Rick Nash of the New York Rangers. He also sees a little bit of Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild in himself.

“I need to be a little more physical,” he says, “especially to play at a higher level.”

Naturally, Bittner has bonded with fellow second-year U.S. players Keegan Iverson, Dominic Turgeon and Alex Schoenborn, as well as second-year Dane Oliver Bjorkstrand. This year, Bittner lives with teammate Chase De Leo, a Californian; both of them, by the way, have the reputation of loving to talk.

“He’s definitely not a quiet guy,” Petan says, of Bittner. “He’s pretty outgoing. Super nice guy.”

Petan says Bittner continues to learn the game, developing better instincts about where to pass, where to be on the ice and when to shoot the one-timer. “Whatever advice we can give him, he’s happy about it,” Petan says.

What does Bittner like about his linemates?

“Just how calm they are,” he says. “Not nonchalant, just confident. They know how they’re going to score and how things will happen in a game. And, their consistency every night — that’s what I’d like to pride myself on. I feel in the playoffs, I’ve played really consistently.”

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