Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets pay a lot to keep Little

Centreman delighted to stay here for 5 years

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Bryan Little isn't big on change, but he is keen on loyalty. So when the Winnipeg Jets gave him ample reason to stick around for a while -- $23.5 million over five years -- their No. 1 centre was quick to put his signature on a new contract.

After all, the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers are the only NHL organization he's known since hearing his name called 12th overall at the 2006 NHL Draft.

"I didn't want to leave. It would be one thing if I wasn't happy in Winnipeg and if I wasn't happy with the organization or the team," Little said Monday in a conference call. "It's somewhere I wanted to come back to and be a part of for the long term.

"I've been through a lot of rough times in Atlanta, but I think this organization's best days are ahead of them in the very near future. I wanted to stay to be a part of that. It wasn't really hard for me to make the decision to stay with Winnipeg for a long time.

"I'm not one of those guys that wants to jump around teams. I'd rather be part of something more stable and this is the organization that I started off with, so I would love to stay here for as long as I can."

A restricted free agent, Little was scheduled to go to arbitration Wednesday in Toronto if a new contract hadn't been hammered out in advance. His signing leaves two restricted free agents scheduled to head for arbitration if a new deal can't be worked out beforehand: right-winger Blake Wheeler and defenceman Zach Bogosian.

Matt Keator, Wheeler's agent, told Free Press columnist Gary Lawless in an email: "We have had some candid conversations and will continue to do so. Hopefully we will avoid going to Toronto. We'll see how the week unfolds."

Bogosian's agent, Bob Murray, added: "We continue to talk. One way or another, it will be done no later than August 2nd (the date of his meeting with the arbitrator)."

Little's new deal, which averages $4.7 million a season, is significant because he's a versatile two-way forward who centres the line with Andrew Ladd on the left and Wheeler on the right.

If Wheeler and Bogosian are locked into long-term deals like Little, the Jets will have nine players, not including draftees Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, sewed up through 2015-16 and beyond, also including Evander Kane and Toby Enstrom (through 2017-18), Ondrej Pavelec (2016-17) and Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Grant Clitsome (2015-16).

The question now and in the years ahead is whether this core can first morph into a playoff team and then a Stanley Cup contender.

"At the end of the day, that's what we all want," Little said. "If I felt the team was going to struggle for five more years I wouldn't have signed that deal.

"I think this team's best days are in the near future. If you look at the guys we have on our team that we have locked up for the longer term... I'm pretty excited, especially with some of these young kids coming up the Jets have drafted. I think they're going to help us out a lot, too.

"Our best days are ahead of us and we all want to be a part of it."

Ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

 

--with files from Gary Lawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2013 D2

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