Will Bitten debuted on the list last year higher than any prospect taken beyond the first two rounds of the draft ever had. The 2016 third-round pick was 14th in our rankings, reflecting his pre-draft placements, most of which had him graded as a second-round pick.
Putting up some really good numbers in his draft year while dealing with a tumultuous situation in Flint where ownership and coaching staff clashed, he asked for a trade before the 2016-17 season began. He ended up going to the Hamilton Bulldogs, and expectations were high after getting a proper chance to show his talents.
Unfortunately, it was an underwhelming season. He had a slight dip in production despite playing on a better team, and while it wasn’t a bad season by any stretch, it was simply below the expectations many had for him.
The 57 points were tied for second on the team. He was also second on the team in primary points, both in all situations and at five-on-five. He was third in relative goals-for percentage among forwards playing at least 15 games, and second on his team in both high-danger and medium-danger shots.
Bitten’s votes were mostly in the 13-18 range, with only five of the 24 votes coming outside of that: four higher (7, two 10s, and 12) and one lower (19).
The highest vote was mine, at #7, and I am high on him for the reasons listed above and his strong development camp performances. When I watch him, I see a future NHL regular. He definitely has that potential, but others are more guarded about the likelihood of reaching his potential.
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After that record debut in 2016, he dropped one spot this year, but that could be attributed more to the players added in this year’s draft and improvements by others more than anything regarding Bitten himself.
But let’s be fair: Bitten’s year didn’t do much to help his stock.
Bitten is a player who creates his own opportunities. He has decent speed to go with the skill and instincts to be an impact player, and while he may not be elite in any particular area, the combination makes him a very intriguing prospect.
Among OHL forwards who were in their draft+1 season, Bitten was ninth in high-danger shots. He has a knack for finding those in-tight areas, and has been a breakaway beast in the past to get one-on-one chances with the opposing netminder.
A look at his season highlight pack shows him scoring most of his goals in the dangerous areas, and he has the skill to convert on those chances, regularly getting elevation on his shot despite being close to the goaltender.
At development camp this summer he played with Canadiens first-round pick Ryan Poehling, and constantly got into good scoring areas. Those instincts mixed with his skill are why he was projected so high last June, and why he could be an NHL player in the future.
Of his 34 assists only nine were secondary. His team’s offence is largely created by him while he’s on the ice, which is encouraging for his future. He plays all facets of the game, and can be depended on his own zone.
Bitten is under 6’0”, which means his size is required to come up at most three breaths after his name is mentioned. So far it hasn’t been a hindrance to his game as he works his way to the net, but without elite skill or speed he may struggle to find the space he enjoys in junior at the next level when facing better defenders.
If he is to continue his development as a centreman — a position that he has been gradually seeing more time in over his OHL career — he needs more work on his faceoff technique. He took 522 draws last season (fifth among players who played at least part of the season with Hamilton) but won only 42% of them.
Bitten’s year last season will have some people concerned. He entered a much better situation than his draft year, yet his production dropped across the board. It could be that the drama of the previous season finally caught up to him. He also had to adjust to a new team and a new style for the third consecutive season.
There’s definitely talent, but there are some red flags and there will be question about how his game will translate to the professional level if there are no improvements in his CHL numbers.
This will be a big year for Bitten. Players in their draft+2 season need to step up in a big way; another season like the previous one just won’t cut it.
Bitten was selected to Canada’s World Junior Summer Showcase roster, but remains a long shot to make the team for the winter tournament. He has played for Canada at the under-18 level, and that means he could have a leg up on some other players, but he was on lower-line duty during the camp, making little impact during his ice time, and would need a great start to the season to stay in consideration.
Going into his second year with Hamilton should be good for him as he’s had an off-season with stability and can focus on improving within an established system.
Bitten projects to be a middle-six forward in the NHL; a Daniel Carr-type player with more offensive upside. Whether he makes it that far will be the question. He needs to convert his top qualities into tangible production improvements in the OHL.
He performed very well in a bad situation with Flint, though the expected automatic boost from playing with a better team didn’t come to fruition with Hamilton. The 2017-18 season will be very important for Bitten as he makes his case for an entry-level contract.
All statistics courtesy of Prospect-Stats.com