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Catching The Torch: Prospect Profile — Don't underestimate William Bitten's NHL potential

Stats, highlights, and updates on the Montreal Canadiens prospects from the past week, with an in-depth report on William Bitten.

2016 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images

Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs prospects playing at the junior (OHL, WHL), collegiate (USHL, NCAA), and professional (ECHL) level.

The stat sheet is one of the most important things to look at when evaluating a prospect. There is a strong link between scoring at the junior level and the likelihood of an NHL career.

For that reason, the fact that the Habs’ 2016 third-rounder is only now a point-per-game player, in his fourth year of OHL hockey, makes him a write-off in some people's minds.

But don't underestimate William Bitten.

After what was underwhelming production to start to the season, he has posted 10 points in his last four games.

Spending the first 21 games missing scoring chances and setting up his teammates only for his efforts to go for nought, this is a sign that maybe things are finally going his way.

Not all of those early-season chances were perfect tape-to-tape passes, but when you thread the needle across the middle of the ice through multiple sticks, at some point the onus falls on the receiver to finish the play. Especially on golden opportunities in the slot when the goalie didn't have time to position himself, and not much more than a decent release was needed.

Even if it's impossible to expect all of those plays to result in a goal, it's not hard to find occassions that should have earned him a few more points than what he currently holds, and his total should be higher on sheer volume of chances alone.

His own finishing ability is a more legitimate cause for concern. He's on pace for 16 goals, which would be even lower than last season’s disappointing total of 23 after posting 30 goals in his draft year.

He has had difficulty beating goalies one-on-one. This remains quite strange as it's something he had no problem doing in 2015-16, when he scored several breakaway goals by easily creating holes to get the puck past opposing netminders.

That ability shouldn’t be something that gets lost with time, so it may just be a case of rediscovering his scoring touch. Fortunately, it is possible to work on finishing ability with practice. Paul Byron is a good example of someone who refined this skill, to the point he can be considered a top-six forward.

Bitten has three goals in his last four games, two coming from shots placed above the goalie's left shoulder. His release selection has been better lately, as he’s stopped using the less accurate short-windup slapshots unless the situation made it necessary.

With the occasions he's been getting, it would be improbable for Bitten's goal total to not go up significantly in the next few weeks, as he shouldn't keep converting only 7.6% of his shots; about half of his 14.9% mark the previous season.

And even in the unlikeliness that Bitten's production doesn't increase, he still has many qualities that makes him project as an NHLer down the road.

He's an incredible skater, whether grading in terms of quickness, straight-line speed, or agility.

He protects the puck very well, twisting away from defenders as soon as he catches a glimpse of the pressure coming from either side. He's able to switch to one-handed puck-handing, using his other arm as a shield while placing the puck in an area that makes taking it away difficult.

But even when there's no space for him to escape from defenders with his superior skating, he never backs down from a battle on the boards. He establishes body positioning and works hard to come out of the scrum with the puck.

His small stature doesn't deter him from playing with a physical edge. Very good on the forecheck, he has thrown some huge hits this season, and doesn't shy away from perfect opportunities to do so (even if it means accidentally hitting a teammate.)

He always makes an effort to get to the net, and sitting on the back post is exactly how he got his first goal this week. He also tends to go for the typical Brendan Gallagher move where he tries to slide the puck in between the goalies pads as he comes back to the front of the crease.

But he doesn’t just bang away at the goalie. If he finds the puck, he often tries to get it across the crease to a teammate who only has to put it in a gaping net.

And for all of the great elements in his game, Bitten's passing ability remains the primary reason to believe that he can produce at the next level. He's one of the better playmakers in the Canadiens’ system, next to Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling, and not that far behind them.

Two of Bitten’s assists were great examples of this. Both times he made it look like he was about to shoot (the first one by bringing the puck in front of him, and the second one by looking straight at the net) only to pass to a teammate in perfect position for a shot or a redirect.

Even if we base the likelihood of Bitten making an impact at the NHL level only on his production — something that can be very team dependent — Bitten has received help in the form of a trade this week that should bolster Hamilton's offence, currently one of the league's worst.

The addition of Nicholas Caamano, who was William Bitten's centre when he scored 30 goals for the Flint Firebirds, could help Bitten accelerate his production pace coming off of what looks like a turning point for him in the season.

The other player is Ryan Moore, a prolific OHL scorer with a 39-goal season under his belt (2016-17). Either of those new guys could have instant chemistry with the Habs prospect.

It was those two new players’ first game with Hamilton on Saturday when they faced the Ottawa 67's. For that match, Bitten wasn't paired with either of them. The head coach preferred to keep his usual first line of Matthew Strome, Bitten, and Marian Studenic intact for the team's third game in three days, especially right after a performance of five points from Bitten.

However, that doesn't mean that there won't be some different combinations tried over the rest of the season; one game isn't a trend. There were a lot of pointless streaks for Bitten this season playing on that line.

The difference was that the Bulldogs didn't have many other good combinations to try for their top players, something they definitely have now. They are equipped to finish the season strong, make their first-round elimination in the playoffs last year a distant memory, and create a better environment for Bitten to unleash his offensive potential.

Weekly CHL performance

Player Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Pos League Team GP G A P
William Bitten RW OHL Hamilton 3 2 5 7
Michael Pezzetta C OHL Sudbury 3 1 0 1
Cale Fleury RD WHL Regina 3 1 1 2
Jarret Tyszka LD WHL Seattle 3 1 1 2
Scott Walford LD WHL Victoria 1 0 1 1
Josh Brook RD WHL Moose Jaw Back to practice

Cale Fleury (#4) and Jarret Tyskza (#5) faced each other this week in a match where Tyszka's Thunderbirds easily won 6-3. Both prospects had a goal and an assist in that game, their only points this week.

CHL season to date

Player Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Pos League Team GP G A P
William Bitten RW OHL Hamilton 25 6 19 25
Michael Pezzetta C OHL Sudbury 27 12 12 24
Cale Fleury RD WHL Regina 23 7 7 14
Jarret Tyszka LD WHL Seattle 22 2 12 14
Scott Walford LD WHL Victoria 25 0 11 11
Josh Brook RD WHL Moose Jaw Back to practice

Scott Walford seems to have sustained an injury Tuesday when the Victoria Royals lost 10-4 to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. He was on the ice for two five-on-five goals and recorded an assist. He did not play the other two games his team had this week.

Follow David (@RinksideView) on Twitter for daily prospect updates.