WINNIPEG — It could have been a very long summer for Bryan Little following the Winnipeg Jets’ first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs last April. When you’ve got 12 NHL seasons on the books, certainly you’re entitled to an extended re-charge once the games stop. But doing nothing was driving Little — and likely those around him in his Cambridge, Ont., home — nuts, so back to work he went.
“I took, like, two-and-a-half weeks and I was just kinda grumpy,” Little says. “And I felt healthy, so I’m just like, ‘I need to get moving or I’m going to go crazy.’”
In search of sanity, the 31-year-old did something downright silly, putting a cherry on top of every workout by finishing them off with a spin on the appropriately named Assault AirBike, a piece of gym equipment that’s been known to induce vomit at a draft combine here and there.
“Those suck,” Little says with a laugh.
Bear in mind, that’s coming from a long-standing conditioning freak. No matter how difficult those rides were, though, you get the sense it’s nothing compared to how Little has felt at times over the past couple seasons as his goal and point totals took an appreciable hit. Each of the past two Februarys has seen Winnipeg go out at the trade deadline and acquire a guy — Paul Stastny in 2018, Kevin Hayes six months ago — to fill the second-line centre role Little was penciled in for at the start of those seasons.
He’s once again set to begin the year behind Mark Scheifele as the club’s 2C and while some Jets backers may have some reservations, it’s worth taking a closer look at the bounce-back potential of a guy who is universally adored in the dressing room.
Little hasn’t missed a game the past two seasons, producing 16 goals, 27 assists and 43 points in 2017-18 before posting a 15-26-41 line last year. The real dip, though, is in his per-game shots on goal. The 1.54 he put up last season is the lowest mark of his career, just below the 1.57 (second-lowest) he registered the year prior. Why the dip? Because Little has been playing beside Patrik Laine, one of the deadliest young snipers in the game. There’s plenty of positives when it comes to skating beside somebody like Laine, but re-formatting your approach to accommodate the new dynamic of a trio can still be a process.
“When you have a guy like that on your line, you’re always looking to pass to him and get him the puck, so my shot totals are way down the past two years,” Little explains. “That’s okay — you want the puck in his hands.
“At the same time, if I’m constantly looking for him, maybe that’s a bad thing. So that’s something I think about sometimes, too. It has to be a fine line between playing my own game and trying not to force him the puck when it’s not there.”
The fact Little’s production has been there relatively recently is probably a bit obscured by the past two tough seasons. In 2015-16, Little averaged a career-high 2.23 shots per game and scored 17 goals in 57 contests, good for a 24-goal pace over 82 games. The next year was his first beside Laine and while his shot total did immediately dip (2.02), he tallied 21 times in 59 outings thanks to a shooting percentage of 17.6. Over those two injury-plagued years, Little scored at a 27-goal clip. That’s pretty good for a guy who’s netted more than 24 goals in a season just once in a long NHL tenure.
“I’m not really content,” Little says of his recent numbers. “Of course you want to score goals and put up points. I’ve always, for the most part, been pretty steady with production, so the last two seasons have been a bit frustrating, I wish I could [have] produced a bit more. I [also] have to understand I’m playing with guys who can shoot the puck now, whereas before, I felt like I was the shooter on the line. I understand that I might not be putting up the goals I used to, but I still have high expectations for myself.”
Laine — who won’t be playing beside anybody until he signs a new contract — isn’t the only talented-but-green winger Little has been skating with. Nikolaj Ehlers has also been a frequent linemate, so while Little can’t complain about the offensive abilities of his flanks, he’s also had to be the defensive conscience on his unit while the kids figure both ends of this league out.
“He is great defensively,” Ehlers says. “And for him, playing with guys like me and Patty who are pretty offensive, he does [almost everything] right and you learn a lot from him. I’ve learned a lot from him.
“He’s a great two-way centre.”
The challenge for Little will be scoring at a rate that backs up that statement. What you can already bank on, though, is he will continue to be among the most respected people in a Jets sweater thanks to his quiet, determined demeanour.
“He’s not going to flash you, he’s not going to wow you,” says Winnipeg winger Andrew Copp. “That seems like the direction the game is going a little bit, but you need to have guys like him to win. I have a great admiration for what Bryan does.”
For that to become a city-wide sentiment, the goals and points Little is working so hard to get will have to follow.