Little move making big impact

Veteran forward working on communication with young linemates

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NEW YORK — In his 11th season as a full-time NHLer, Bryan Little has been forced out of his comfort zone.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/12/2017 (1800 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

NEW YORK — In his 11th season as a full-time NHLer, Bryan Little has been forced out of his comfort zone.

Perhaps the most unflappable member of the Winnipeg Jets, Little is also one of the club’s more reserved personalities and he’s usually more than happy to let his play do the talking. Until this season, that is.

The 30-year-old Little — who has played most of the first half of 2017-18 with Nikolaj Ehlers, a 21-year-old Dane, and Patrik Laine, a 19-year-old Finn — is trying to find a better way to mesh his Canadian cool with his young linemates.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little (18) digs for the puck as St. Louis Blues' Patrik Berglund (21) goes to the ice during second period NHL action in Winnipeg on Sunday, December 17, 2017.

“I’m finding myself having to talk more because I’m not used to playing with those two,” Little said this week. “We played a little bit together last year, but this year, we’re still trying to figure it out.

“We all have different styles, which is the main thing. We try to get on the same page and whether that means talking more on the bench or on the ice, it’s going to be beneficial.”

Little insists it’s not a cultural divide, but a style difference. Getting to know your linemates, their tendencies and peculiarities, doesn’t happen over night.

Unspoken communication should come with time.

“I wouldn’t say the European thing is an issue,” Little said. “I’ve just been used to at least one linemate that’s straightforward, (goes) up and down. I played with (Andrew) Ladd for a ton of years. (Former Jet Michael) Frolik, he was from Czech, but he was pretty straightforward, up and down and a good defensive guy. These guys, they’re a bit more unpredictable for me. They’re creative, which is good, but I mean, sometimes I lose track of where they are on the ice. That’s why we’re trying to talk more.”

Ehlers believes the chemistry issues will be ironed out in time, but points out the line has been producing. Laine, Ehlers and Little are 3-4-5 in club scoring with 29, 28 and 21 points, respectively.

Laine has a team-leading 18 goals. Ehlers has 17. But their ongoing five-on-five play, Little said, needs to improve.

“We’ve been trying to talk more on the ice (and) off the ice about hockey,” Ehlers said of his relationship with Little.

“He’s a great guy… When things aren’t going too well, he’s trying to get me and Patty going. And we do talk when there’s something bothering us with the way that we’re playing and there’s something we need to work on.”

The Jets believe the partnershipcan benefit both their young stars and Little.

When he skates onto the ice at the Barclays Center against the New York Islanders this afternoon, Little will equal a franchise record set last spring by former Jet Chris Thorburn with 709 career regular-season games played.

The number doesn’t hold much importance for Little, but the symbolism does.

“I didn’t know about it, but it’s kinda cool,” said Little, who debuted with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007-08 and moved to Winnipeg with the franchise in time for the 2011-12 season. “I like the fact I’ve been with one franchise and kind of seen it through all its ups and downs. As far as just games played, not really.

“I’ve kinda seen it through everything. When I first got in, there was a lot of good older players that were on their way out and playing their final years and it was good for me to see that and to play with some of those guys. There were a lots of ups and downs, lots of struggles and a lot of coaching changes.”

Little signed a six-year, US$31.75-million contract extension in the off-season. The new deal kicks in next season and his role with the team will evolve.

He was once the No. 1 centre who was also saddled with the most important defensive matchup responsibilities, but Mark Schiefele’s emergence as a true No. 1 has removed some of the toughest matchups, while Adam Lowry’s development on Winnipeg’s checking line has helped to spread out those responsibilities.

“When I was talking about coming back and re-signing here I wanted to stay because I felt the best years were coming right now,” Little said.

“It’s the most exciting time to be part of this team, so I wanted to be part of it.”

Staying the course and buying into management’s long term draft-and-develop plan was a leap of faith.

“It was a bit frustrating,” Little said.

“I wasn’t getting any younger and guys had been with the team for a long time. But you’ve gotta trust the people in charge that they know what they’re talking about. We wanted to win as soon as we got to Winnipeg, but you’re not going to have a winning team every year.

“I feel like we’ve been trending in the right direction as far as drafting great players, good kids in the dressing room. I feel like it’s starting to pay off now.”

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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Updated on Saturday, December 23, 2017 7:48 AM CST: Edited

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