When the Montreal Canadiens entered the draft, fans were hoping for a guy like Alex Debrincat to fall to them in the second round. When they traded their two second-round picks for Andrew Shaw, they didn’t have a second pick until the third round.
However, being able to get Will Bitten with the 70th pick overall was pretty much the best case scenario after trading out of the second round. Only ISS Hockey had him ranked outside of the Top 50 of the major Draft rankings and he was as high as 28 by Future Considerations.
Bitten is the son of two Olympic badminton players. Both his parents represented Canada at the 1992 Olympics, and his mother, Doris Piché, also went to the 1996 Games. Piché got to the third round in women’s singles at Barcelona 1992.
Bitten was taken in the 1st round of the OHL Draft by the Plymouth Whalers. The team has since moved to Flint and became the Firebirds.
If you aren’t familiar with what happened in Flint, here’s the short version. The team’s owner, Rolf Nilsen, fired both the head coach and assistant coach. The entire team - including the owner’s son Håkon - went into the team’s front office, threw their jerseys on the ground and quit the team. The league stepped in and reinstated the staff and told Nilsen to stay out of hockey decisions, even going so far as to say any coaching changes needed to go through the league.
A few months later, Nilsen fired the coaching staff anyways. The league then suspended Nilsen for five years, and stated that if he interferes in anymore hockey decisions they can force him to sell the team.
Bitten put up very encouraging numbers despite the drama surrounding the team. He improved his point production by 34 points over his rookie OHL season, while scoring 30 goals and leading the Firebirds in most statistical categories.
Bitten was consistently in the top 15, with only six votes coming outside of it. His highest vote came from Marc and Justin at 11, while his lowest vote was from Cara at 22.
Top 25 Under 25 History
As a 2016 Draft Pick, this is obviously Bitten’s first time in the T25U25. A lot of eyes will be on him this season to see if he lives up to his ranking in his first go around, and his season will dictate what happens to his ranking next season.
Undersized. Hard worker. Goes to the dirty areas.
It’s clear why people who follow the Canadiens are so high on Bitten this early in his Habs career - the Canadiens already have a pretty great version of Bitten in Brendan Gallagher.
Now Bitten isn’t Gallagher. Gallagher’s junior numbers, even if you isolate his first two seasons, are way above what Bitten has done to this point, but Gallagher (and guys like Tyler Johnson, Johnny Gaudreau and others) have allowed guys like Bitten to be taken in the third round instead of the fifth, although Bitten still probably should have gone higher.
Bitten may not have elite skill, but he’s quite talented, and has the hockey sense to put himself is great situations that benefit his team and his teammates. As evidenced by the above video, you can see him getting tons of breakaways and making key passes.
His speed is also a huge asset. Seeing number 41 on breakaways like that is like watching Paul Byron, but I can safely say Bitten gets them more regularly.
He has also played all three forward positions and during all three situations, so he doesn’t project to be a guy you need to shelter or can only play an offensive game. His value becomes clear when you observe that he had 17 points more than his nearest teammate in Flint.
When I saw him at development camp he looked like one of the best players on the ice, and it was his first pro experience. If he can carry that attitude and play, there’s reason to believe that the Canadiens have another potential Gallagher or Daniel Carr in the ranks.
He’s not the biggest guy, as I’ve mentioned and those types of players are quite often boom or bust players. For every exception to the rule there are four or five reasons the rule exists in the first place. But what is encouraging about Bitten is his willingness to play bigger.
Obviously the situation in Flint is not ideal to say the least, and that is something to keep an eye on this season. Simply put, it’s not a great situation in which to develop players.
Bitten’s dad told The Hockey News that Will suffered with the trade of two of his teammates and closest friends, defenceman Josh Wesley and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.
Here’s the passage from The Hockey News:
“My son went through a kind of a depression when Nedeljkovic and Wesley were traded,” Michael Bitten said. “The stats speak for themselves. I saw on a forum said that William only scored two goals the last 15 games and was minus-19 and that speaks volumes because that’s exactly what happened. It was the turmoil that was really getting to him. It was very, very difficult.”
Bitten will once again be expected to lead his Flint team this season in the Ontario Hockey League. With the ownership situation seemingly put behind them, it will be interesting to see how the team - and Bitten - do.
After doubling on his production from his first season, expectations will be high for Bitten to continue his development.
He will also be a big long shot for the World Junior Hockey Championship this winter. He was a part of the Under 18 Team Canada this past year, and had two points in four games. He is young for his draft year, only turning 18 this past July.
Perhaps the best thing for Bitten would be to be traded to a contending team, like Jeremiah Addison was, or simply a stable environment. Although, new management might not be willing to part with him, especially because he has two years of Junior eligibility remaining, but it could be something to look for as the season progresses.