Substance over style

Ladd, Little and Wheeler have emphasized defence to evolve into one of the top all-round lines in NHL

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Around here they're known as Little, Ladd and Wheeler. Elsewhere? They're really not even known.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2015 (2805 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Around here they’re known as Little, Ladd and Wheeler. Elsewhere? They’re really not even known.

Maybe it’s because Bryan Little is, well, too little. Maybe it’s because Andrew Ladd doesn’t have the flash most associate with a top-line winger. Maybe it’s because Blake Wheeler’s skill set makes him appear to be an odd fit with his linemates.

Whatever the reason for the lack of respect and lack of renown, Winnipeg’s top trio is getting it done this season like few other lines.

Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press files Blake Wheeler (left), Bryan Little (middle) and Andrew Ladd are among the top point producers and also have some of the best possession numbers.

A look at the numbers both plain and fancy shows the Jets’ favourite line sits sixth in scoring among regular combos with 111 points and has an excellent possession number at 56.4 per cent in Score-adjusted Corsi.

Ladd leads the line with 17 goals and 39 points, Little is right behind him with 18 goals and 37 points while Wheeler has 12 goals and 35 points.

Little is perhaps the most underrated No. 1 centre in the NHL. He’s too small to compete in the tall trees of the Western Conference, goes conventional thinking. But on many nights this season, he’s come out on top in battles with some of the best the west has to offer.

Ladd is the poor man’s power forward. Or is he?

Among left-wingers in the NHL, he ranks eighth in both goals and points.

Wheeler is the lone Olympian in the group and with his size and speed, doesn’t appear to be a fit with his linemates. But his best hockey always comes when he’s skating with Ladd and Little.

The trio is a bargain by NHL standards, with Wheeler earning the most at $5.8 million. Their combined salaries total just over $15 miilion this season.

Little, Ladd and Wheeler. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue in bar room banter when it comes to the best lines in the NHL. They don’t have a superstar such as Sidney Crosby or Ryan Getzlaf or Alex Ovechkin. What they lack in wattage, however, they make up for in balance and consistency.

“I guess we don’t pay much attention to where we rank. Our job first and foremost is to make the other team’s job as tough as possible, limit their scoring chances and try to frustrate them,” said Wheeler.

“What you see playing some of the top lines is that if you can get to them in the first period (make them feel as if it’s going to be a long night), that’s where you’re going to start getting some scoring chances later in the game.

“They’re going to try to do some things, like cheat a little bit offensively, and get frustrated. That’s how you create your offence. That’s our recipe right there.”

The recipe, defend first and the points will follow, is what makes this group both unique and successful, says Jets coach Paul Maurice.

“The way they had approached the game in the past, the idea was that they had to score and they felt that pressure,” said Maurice.

“You would watch those games and they would work their butts off. But they weren’t overly effective. They’d get some chances, they’d give some up and spend a lot of energy doing it.

“When they went back together this year, it was under the mandate, ‘You can play together if you can do these other things. We need you to play against the other team’s best a lot of nights. You need to be even (plus-minus) to start or even and better at the end of the night.’ And they’ve taken to that.”

Maurice is all about defend first and it has to start at the top. Little, Ladd and Wheeler aren’t only productive forwards, they’re also key leaders in the dressing room. So while the scoring is great, what Maurice likes best is how it has been achieved.

“Their offensive numbers are great and the cost hasn’t been great. They have put winning first and their line production second. And their line production has been great and we have won more games,” said Maurice.

It used to be said in regularity around these parts that the Jets’ top line was better suited to be a pretty good second unit. That thinking is now outdated in every respect.

Little, Ladd and Wheeler aren’t just Winnipeg’s best line. They’re one of the NHL’s best.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

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