The United States League holds its Top Prospects Game in Dubuque tonight, with draft dandies such as Kyle Connor, Brock Boeser and Tom Novak leading the charge. And with the world juniors in the books, it’s interesting to look back at the CHL and see which players upped their games with extra responsibility and opportunity. So that’s part of what we’re doing this week in our weekly look at prospects we’re excited to see in the NHL some day.
Paul Bittner, LW – Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
Not to get all Charles Dickens about it, but Bittner’s decision to leave Minnesota for the Western League was both the hardest decision and the easiest. At 15, he was already a beast for Crookston High School, but then he visited Portland and fell in love with the Winterhawks. It meant that he wouldn’t have a chance to play in the awesome Minnesota state high school tournament, held at the Xcel Center, but Bittner was taking the long view and still remembers his logic:
“Junior isn’t the goal and the NCAA isn’t the goal,” he said. “The NHL is the goal.”
Now in his third year with the Winterhawks, Bittner is getting closer. A 6-foot-4, 202-pound power forward, he’s playing on Portland’s top line with dynamic Winnipeg Jets prospects Chase De Leo and Nic Petan. Given the amount of talent Portland has seen in recent years, Bittner had to bide his time, but now he’s grabbing some spotlight.
“The first season and a half, I wasn’t expected to do much,” he said. “Just get the puck in the zone. It’s nice to be counted on now.”
While a minor ankle injury slowed him down in November, Bittner has 16 points in his past 15 games – and keep in mind Petan and De Leo were both away at the world juniors for some of those contests. He prides himself on forechecking, driving through the middle of the ice and being a difficult net-front presence, but still wants to play more physical and be harder on the puck. Fortunately, he’s getting great coaching from former NHL assistant Jamie Kompon, who had big shoes to fill when Mike Johnston left for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“On the ice, he’s intense like coach Johnston was,” Bittner said. “Off the ice his door is always open. Picking his brain on what he has learned at the pro level has been a big help.”
For a kid who knows where he wants to go, it’s good to see Bittner putting the work in – whether he’s wearing skates or looking at a whiteboard. Draft eligible in 2015.
Cam Askew, C – Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
A big kid with nice hands and a great shot, Askew exploded for the Wildcats while Ivan Barbashev was gone for the world juniors, with the Boston native earning league three stars of the week honors in the process. Askew has also been very helpful during the shootout lately. Draft eligible in 2015.
Mackenzie Blackwood, G – Barrie Colts (OHL)
For a while there it seemed like there were no hot draft-eligible goalies in the CHL, but Blackwood has put together a great run for the Colts. The confident 6-foot-4, 215-pound netminder has won eight of his past 10 decisions, using his frame and reflexes to stonewall opponents. Draft eligible in 2015.
Cooper Marody, C – Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)
It’s all about the puck game for Marody, a University of Michigan commit who was traded to the Stampede from Muskegon at the start of December. The kid has great instincts and good skill, but scouts wanted to see more pace and hoped the trade would help. With 18 points in his first 12 games for Sioux Falls, Marody is shining and will play in the Top Prospects Game. Draft eligible in 2015.
C.J. Franklin, LW – Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks (WCHA)
Speedy, hard-working and athletic, Franklin is having a great freshman season with the Mavs, who just jumped up in the polls and now stand first overall in the NCAA. The left winger has six points in his past five games and is really starting to come on strong. Drafted 129th overall by Winnipeg in 2014.
Thomas Chabot, D – Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
Described as an effortless skater by scouts, Chabot has been one of several surprise players for the Sea Dogs this season. The second-year blueliner has more than speed to his game, however. Chabot makes good decisions, checks his options and can really handle the puck. Draft eligible in 2015.
Jens Looke, RW – Brynas (SHL)
A really energetic player for Sweden at the world juniors, Looke was the youngest skater on the squad but still tallied three goals in seven games. Fast with great hands and a willingness to go to the net, Looke will have to improve his on-ice awareness, but there’s a great motor there to work with. Draft eligible in 2015.
Radovan Bondra, LW – Kosice (Svk.)
Bondra made his debut with Kosice’s men’s team on the weekend and even scored a goal in a losing cause. A big kid with nice reach and a quick release, Bondra largely played a defensive and penalty-killing role on Slovakia’s bronze-medal world junior team, but passed coach Ernest Bokros’ tests during the tournament. Draft eligible in 2015.
Noah Juulsen, D – Everett Silvertips (WHL)
A mobile defenseman with good size, Juulsen plays with a wicked physical edge to his game and has no problem dropping the gloves if anyone objects. The Tips blueliner is also putting up great offensive numbers with 30 points through 42 games. Draft eligible in 2015.
Karch Bachman, LW – Culver Military Academy Eagles (IN. HS)
The Eagles play a tough schedule and are coming off a split with the always-scary Shattuck-St. Mary’s team from Minnesota. One of Culver’s top players is Bachman, a Miami commit with great speed and a quick release who loves to bomb down the ice with the puck on his stick. Draft eligible in 2015.