Crookston product knows he needs to stay healthy in the fourth and final year of his first contract.
While from a perspective outside the National Hockey League’s procedural, transactional world at this time of the year – as training camp and the preseason lead up to the puck dropping on a new NHL season – it might seem like Crookston’s Paul Bittner has been treated like a Yo-Yo over the past several days. But nothing that has transpired with him and his professional hockey career in recent days has come as a surprise.
In fact, it was all entirely expected.
Bittner, a member of the Crookston High School Class of 2015 who left Crookston in 2012 after his freshman year of high school to pursue his NHL dreams in major junior hockey as a member of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, was placed on waivers earlier this week by the NHL’s Columbus Bluejackets, the team that selected him with the #38 pick early in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Bittner’s first year of draft eligibility. As expected, Bittner cleared waivers, so Columbus called him back up and he played in their preseason game Wednesday night against the Buffalo Sabres. The Bluejackets lost 4-3 in overtime, but Bittner, a 6’4”, 205-pound winger, had a strong game, assisting on Columbus’ first goal, getting some shots, making some hits, and logging more than 14 minutes of ice time. After the game, again, as expected, he was sent back down to Columbus’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters, where Bittner has spent the past two-plus seasons.
So why all of the up and down over the past several days? It’s all procedural and related to Bittner’s contract. The 22-year-old is considered a “late” birthday (Nov. 4, 1996). That means if he didn’t play 10 NHL games in his first pro year – he has yet to play in a regular season NHL game – a fourth year or “slide” year would be added to his contract. The season that commences next week is Bittner’s fourth/slide year. But in that fourth year, he must be exposed to waivers for 24 hours if Columbus tries to send him to Cleveland, which is what happened when the Bluejackets waived him. During that time, any other NHL team can snatch him up if they want – no team did – but there’s a catch there, too. Had a team picked him up, he’d have to be on their NHL roster for a minimum of 30 days. Since he has yet to crack the Bluejackets’ regular season NHL roster, it would be highly unusual for another NHL team to pluck him off the waiver wire and put him on their roster for a month or more.
Promising start, then injury issues
Bittner was initially signed to a standard, three-year entry-level contract by the Bluejackets, who sent him back in 2015-16 to play another season with Portland. But, after working his way into becoming one of the Winterhawks’ most accomplished players the previous season, Bittner started being bitten by the injury bug during the 2015-16 season. After carding 34 goals and 37 assists in Portland in 66 regular-season games in 2014-15, and 12 more points in the playoffs that season, in 2015-16 Bittner played in only 25 games for Portland, scoring 10 goals and notching 11 assists. He made his debut with the Monsters very late that season. He followed that up with 31 games played in 2016-17, carding three assists, 52 games in 2017-18, notching 9 goals and 9 assists, and in 2018-19, continuing his battle with injuries, he played in 50 games, scoring 9 goals and adding 22 assists.
Bittner says he knows this is perhaps the most pivotal year, at least to date, in his professional hockey career, and that avoiding injuries and staying on the ice is paramount. No athlete wants to get stuck with the “injury-prone” label.
“Camp was great this year,” he tells the Times. “I came in in the best shape I have yet, and they saw that and have told me that.” In his exit interview with coach John Tortorella and team management, they basically told him to keep it up.
Bittner said he fully intends to.
“I showed them great strides to be pushing for a job on the NHL club,” he said. “So I just need to have the start I had last season and hope to avoid injuries and maybe have some circumstances go my way and get a call-up and stay. I need to stay patient and diligent in my work and habits to become a full-time NHL’er.”
Last season, Bittner’s solid start to the season was derailed by, first, a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee. He returned seven weeks later, only to suffer a concussion around a month later. Those were just the latest two injuries that have plagued him in recent seasons.
When Bittner signed with the Winterhawks, he surrendered his eligibility to ever play college hockey. But, somewhat ironically, he thinks the college-coaching background of new Monsters’ coach Mike Eaves, hired this past July, could be especially beneficial to him.
“With him coming from college and the teaching side of the game, I’m going to excel and improve greatly this season,” Bittner tells the Times. “He wants to help me get there. We’ve had meetings and talks and we’ll get there.”
Bittner says he feels as healthy and strong on his skates as he has in four years.
“I’m really excited and I’m going to show them who I am,” he said. “I work hard at what I do to make it to the NHL. That’s my dream and I won’t stop until I get there.”
The Monsters get their season started Oct. 4-5 in Quebec against the Laval Rocket, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadians.