(Editors note: In the countdown to the season opener on September 19th, I will be looking, individually, at each of the returning Winterhawks that look to be on the opening night roster).
Hometown: Crookston, Minnesota
Position: Left Wing
How Acquired: Signed on 4/9/2012, after being listed on the Winterhawk's protected list
-2012/13: 45 Games Played, 12 Goals, 11 Assists, 23 Points, +8, 12 Penalty Minutes.
Playoffs: 19 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 Pts, 0 PIMs.
-2013/14: 63 GP, 22 G, 27 A, 49 Pts, +25, 27 PIMs.
Playoffs: 21 GP, 6 G, 6A, 12 Pts, 11 PIMs.
NHL Drafted: Eligible in 2015
-Bittner came in as a 16 year old in 2012 and immediately turned heads as someone on skates that stands 6'4" is bound to do. He also showed that he moves well for someone his size and has a nice wrist shot. All of those abilities have improved as the last 2 years have gone on, along with even longer strides in being able to deflect point shots, while parking his large frame in front of opposing goalies. You had to think, when seeing Bittner score 9 points over 4 games in his 16 year old season, while playing on the top line with Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic, that he was primed to be an elite pro prospect. He was one of the youngest players in the WHL that year (as he has a November birthday) and had struggles with consistency as the long season began to wear on him. In his 17 year old season, he took strides in that consistency and supplanted the older Alex Schoenborn on the top line as the season went on.
While it had to be difficult adjusting to the fast pace that Leipsic and Petan played at, he slowly cemented his spot getting top minutes and was one of the Hawk's top scorers in the WHL final with 4 goals. A player his size is really perfect to place with speedier stick handlers as he creates room for them with his long reach and size (like Jaromir Jagr does). His accuracy definitely needs continued improvement as he could've been a 40 goal scorer with better touch last season as Petan and Leipsic set him up in perfect spots, time and time again. His play along the boards and stick handling should also be improved, as he figures out to use his now 202 lbs in the tough spots. Bittner also would be an elite penalty killer given his long reach if his defensive positioning improves.
-Bittner, because of his late birthday had his draft eligibility pushed back to this coming June and has been projected as a first rounder, even as high as 6th overall on some sites. With how NHL teams continue to draft size and combined with all the other things he excels at (ice vision for one), this high projection should not be surprising. He also has the opportunity to showcase his skills for scouts when he plays in the All American Prospects Game on September 25th. He should be slotted on the Left Wing of the first line again this season with Oliver Bjorkstrand and Petan, which should give him every chance to score a lot of goals and make sure that he gets selected as a high first round pick. Scoring these goals, parking in front of goalies on the power play and dominating board play is his surest route to the next level of hockey and I have little doubt he will do this.
With all this said, it was rather surprising that he was not included along with teammates: Brendan Burke, Chase De Leo, Keegan Iverson and Dominic Turgeon on the roster this summer for the USA jr.Development Camp. This does not necessarily mean that he cannot be asked to play in the World Junior Championships in late December/early Jaunary, but it does mean that he has a lot of scouts to impress before this happens. With the inclusion of the other Winterhawks on the Development camp roster, it does seem that he was not just left off the roster because he chose the WHL over the NCAA, as some people believe. Regardless, Bittner being a top prospect for this year's draft, the hype will increase and if he does not go to the WJCs, he will be needed to help carry the offense in the absence of others that will be there. We should certainly see more of his "C" for Crookston goal celebrations.
Previous Returning Winterhawk Profiles: Brendan Burke, Anton Cederholm, Ethan Price, Josh Hanson