Last week NHL Central Scouting released their preliminary list of players to watch for the 2015 draft. Thirty-two players were given an "A" rating which means that they are likely first round picks. Among these thirty-two players is Paul Bittner who calls Crookston home. He apparently also has listened to enough polka that he kind of enjoys it.
Bittner plays for the Portland Winterhawks, and will need to be an impact player this season because several of his top-six forward teammates have graduated to playing pro hockey (not to mention several fantastic offensive defensemen). But Bittner does have the skills to make an increased impact. Last season he scored 22 goals and 27 assists in 63 games, playing with Winnipeg Jets' prospect Nic Petan and Nashville Predators' prospect Brendan Leipsic. Bittner also played in the All-American Prospects Game last Thursday and did not score, but had three shots on goal.
Bittner (wearing 9 in dark blue) scored this goal during the 2013 Ivan Hlinka tournament.
The team that drafts Bittner will love his size. He's 6'4" and probably will get taller. He will be huge by the time he's ready for the NHL. With his size, he can muscle in close to the net or fire off shots from farther away. In addition to being tall, he has diverse offensive abilities that allow him to get into scoring areas, and he also has a good top skating speed. He can use his size along the boards and his speed when he's given open ice. His skillset will make him an exceptional NHL power forward. Even when Bittner is not the player on the ice who scores, he causes chaos because he's large, and defensemen must account for him, which creates space for his smaller teammates. Bittner is frequently a pest in the goalie's face in his teammates' highlight videos.
Mike Johnston, the Pittsburgh Penguins new coach, and Bittner's coach in Portland described him to the Portland Tribune last April:
"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.[...] 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."
The scouts at Hockey Prospect like the diversity of his skill set:
"For a big guy, Bittner has a nice array of offensive tools. He has good awareness of the play, along with very good vision and passing skills. He has the strength to get to the tough areas and the soft hands required to finish. Bittner has shown that he can produce offense both off the cycle and off the rush with his long reach and good skating ability. Bittner is able to generate very good top-end speed and his acceleration is good for his size. While he is a particularly good skater for his size, it would be good to see some improvement in the agility department."
Bittner is certainly a player to watch as the season continues. Preliminary mock drafts from various sources have him being drafted anywhere from seventh to twenty-eighth. Hopefully, the Wild will be drafting late in the first round this year, so it's possible he would not be available when it's the Wild's turn to pick. But because the Wild have been preferring to draft players who have some size, Bittner could be a player that they would like to consider.