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Little taking on leading role

Has put last year's numbers in rear-view mirror

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John Woods / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives
Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little has celebrated scoring a goal on 12 occasions so far this season. He has added 11 assists for 23 points.

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John Woods / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little has celebrated scoring a goal on 12 occasions so far this season. He has added 11 assists for 23 points. Photo Store

In the ever-fluid NHL, most things rarely stay the same for very long.

It's a good way to explain the goal chart of Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little, who put home 31 in his first full-time year in the league, 2008-09.

The Edmonton native sagged to 13 goals the next season in Atlanta, then built the total back to 24 for the first year of the new Winnipeg Jets.

The lockout-season goal total dropped to just seven, a number that's already in the rear-view mirror as Little has done a lot already, leading the Jets with 12 goals and 23 points so far in 2013-14.

The key to the early surge is evident if you go asking behind the scenes.

"I think Litts is one of those guys where the biggest compliment you can give him is maybe just how unnoticed he goes," said most-of-the-time linemate Blake Wheeler. "For me, he's the complete package as a centreman. He can score goals. He has great hockey sense. He's always been in the right spot.

"That's probably the highest compliment. He's never out of position. He's always where you need him to be."

Jets right-winger Chris Thorburn, who has been Little's teammate since he turned pro, said what you need to know is that the 12th pick of the 2006 draft can never be accused of being all over the map.

"That's the thing," Thorburn explained. "I don't know that there's much (different) this year. Just maturity, growth, experience. With Litts, he's very underrated. He kind of goes under the radar but he's a guy who's very dependable, a big part of the teams I've been on.

"He just brings it every night. Just watch him. Put the iso cam on him and he's always in position, always makes that play. What else can you ask from your centre iceman?"

Consistency is an enviable animal -- especially with these Jets -- and Little said he hasn't always been this way.

He recalled a time during his 31-goal campaign with the Thrashers.

"I had a pointless drought, about 10 games that year, didn't score a goal or even get a point," he said. "That was definitely a tough time."

The year was definitely something to remember, at least personally.

"I remember a lot of the same goals," he said. "Our power play, our one set-up, was we'd go to the corner, and I think it was either (Slava) Kozlov or (Todd) White would feed me in front of the net and I must have had 10 or 11 from there.

"The power play was really helpful for me. Whereas this year for me, they've come in different ways, in all shapes."

As of Friday, LIttle was tied for fifth in overall NHL goal-scoring, in the top 10 in league shooting percentage (23.1) and sharing the league-lead in short-handed goals (two).

And more to the point of consistency, while last season's goal number seemed low, Little did have 25 assists and those 32 points, pro-rated, would have put him to 54 in a regular-length year. That would have been a career-best, so it's clearly wrong to say this season's hot start has come out of nowhere.

"I've been around him for my whole career, pretty much. Even played with him with the (Chicago) Wolves," said Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec. "He doesn't need a lot of scoring chances to score goals, especially this year.

"He's got the same attitude most of the time and even if he has a bad stretch, he stays positive. It's really good. He's a calm guy, an important guy in our dressing room."

Wheeler, Little and Andrew Ladd haven't been a line 100 per cent of their Jets' time, but the large majority of it.

"The three of us, when we're out there, we're looking for the same things," Wheeler said. "There's no reading and reacting."

Between shifts, Little's wingers are going for reaction -- their centre has what's somewhere between a poker face and an icy glare.

"On the bench, I try to get him going," Wheeler said. "I'm a little bit more animated than he is. After making a nice play or scoring a big goal, I try to get him going on the bench. Half the time he doesn't even remember the play, the other half the time, he just kind of stares at me.

"He's got such a dry sense of humour. He's fun that way."

Now 26, Little said he has evolved into someone more level-headed and more positive.

"I think my first few years when I was younger and things weren't going well, I'd be pretty grumpy and I'd take it home with me," he said. "I've learned to leave it at the rink, especially after a tough game or not playing that well. I'll just come in and treat it as a new day."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 C2

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