His linemate and coach say the same thing about second-year forward Paul Bittner of the Portland Winterhawks: Hes good now, hell 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), hes still finding his game within his body, says Nic Petan, one of the WHLs best players for two years now. He could be a top guy in this league next year, for sure. Hes doing the right things.
Hes really good, says Mike Johnston, Portlands general manager and coach. Hes really growing into his body. Hes gained weight and strength. He has very good intelligence on the ice. Hes really had to get to the right scoring areas and bear down on scoring chances.
Next year, I think hell be a 30- to 40-goal guy. Hell be a really tough player to handle at 18 and 19. Hes going to be a big, big guy when he fills out. Hell be an elite player.
Its 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 isnt likely to let such hype go to his head.
Its every kids dream to be scouted by the NHL, he says. Its exciting, for sure. You cant think the game will be easy, or you wont play well.
The junior hockey game hasnt 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.
Youre playing a limited role, and not a big factor, but I didnt think about it at all, Petan says. It didnt 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 wasnt 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 hell be all right. Hes a streaky scorer.
Hes still a very good player; I dont care how many points he doesnt 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 didnt 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.
Its never been a doubt in my mind playing with Nic and Leiper that we werent 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.
Hes 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 its hard because theyre 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.
Hes definitely not a quiet guy, Petan says, of Bittner. Hes 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, hes 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 theyre going to score and how things will happen in a game. And, their consistency every night thats what Id like to pride myself on. I feel in the playoffs, Ive played really consistently.