Bryan Little had never openly admitted to feeling out of sorts at any point during his long tenure in a Winnipeg Jets uniform.
Not after life was turned upside down when he and his teammates made the sudden move north from Atlanta to the Manitoba capital in 2011. Not at training camp in the fall of 2016 when there was, undoubtedly, some trepidation after a long recuperation from a fractured vertebrae. Not after damaging a knee just a few weeks later in the Jets 2016-17 season opener.
And not after being shuffled down the lineup following the past two NHL trade deadlines when team brass felt an upgrade at the second-line centre position was imperative.
But the veteran forward acknowledged Wednesday he struggled the last few months of the 2018-19 NHL season, not knowing where he fit in when the Jets acquired pending unrestricted free agent Kevin Hayes from the New York Rangers in late February.
"It’s been a little difficult, especially those last 20 games or so when we pick up a new guy and then I’m kind of not really sure where I fit in, if I’m going to be playing wing or if I’m going to be more of a checker," Little said in conversation with reporters at Bell MTS Iceplex after an informal skate. "So, I’ve tried to take that when stuff like that happens, I talk to (head coach) Paul (Maurice) and ask him what my role is and what he wants me to do."
Two games into his brief time in Winnipeg, Hayes supplanted Little down the middle on Winnipeg’s second forward unit with Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. Little moved to the wing on the bottom six and remained there for much of the stretch drive to the playoffs, although he returned to his regular spot during an opening-round series defeat to the St. Louis Blues when Hayes was sputtering.
Little said the confusion and uncertainty he felt was almost immediate.
"We’re bringing in another centre. As soon as that happens, you automatically think, ‘This guy is playing second line, (Adam Lowry) is third line.’ So, that’s just where it comes from," he said. "As soon as that happened, I realized my role might change and that’s why I said before I was prepared to play wing or whatever he told me."
Hayes is now gone, signing a monster deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Jets, just more than a week away from training camp, have picked up no centres ahead of Little on the depth chart, and neither Andrew Copp nor Jack Roslovic has demonstrated a readiness or productiveness to assume the job.
So, just like in each of the last five camps since Mark Scheifele’s emergence as an NHL star, Little remains the team’s best option to anchor the second forward group – despite the bemoaning of many Jets fans who look at the 31-year-old’s big cap hit — nearly US$5.3 million this season and the next four — and his inability to find a spark with young wingers Patrik Laine and Ehlers.
“It was tough last year, near the end of the year not really knowing where I fit in sometimes. But going into camp, I feel like there is some responsibility from the older guys to step up and for the young guys to progress." — Bryan Little
Even Little notes chemistry was discovered in intermittent doses.
"I wish I had the answers. Sometimes, it feels like it’s going well and we’re producing, and sometimes it’s not. I think for a line to play well together, you need all three guys to play good at the same time. And when one thing is thrown off, if I’m not playing well, it’s going to throw off how my wingers are responding," he said.
"I imagine going into the season, stuff isn’t going to be set in stone and it will be kind of trial and error. And just because stuff hasn’t worked out before doesn’t mean it won’t work out this year. People grow as players and mature, and we have a lot of guys in that position. They’re changing and learning the game more and getting older, so you never know what’s going to click and what’s not going to."
Little dressed for all 164 games the past two NHL regular seasons, yet his production of 31 goals and 84 points mirrored his total from the two previous, injury-filled campaigns (2015-17) when he had 38 goals and 51 assists in just 116 games.
Still an effective checker and faceoff guy, Little maintains the offensive gifts are still there as well.
"I definitely went from contributing a lot offensively in years prior… I’d like to see contributing a bit more this year," he said. "It was tough last year, near the end of the year not really knowing where I fit in sometimes. But going into camp, I feel like there is some responsibility from the older guys to step up and for the young guys to progress.
"I know (Maurice) is not just going to give me that role, that spot. It’s up to me to come in and earn it, just as kids are earning spots on the roster. If I play like crap, I don’t deserve to be in that position."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).