November 11, 2019

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Little steps towards recovery

Jets forward makes strides in return to ice

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Jets forward Bryan Little is making headway in his return from a concussion, and could play as early as tonight against the visiting New York Islanders.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Jets forward Bryan Little is making headway in his return from a concussion, and could play as early as tonight against the visiting New York Islanders.

The headaches are gone. So, too, are the sluggish feelings and sensitivity to light that made getting on the ice and up to speed a difficult task. 

Yes, Bryan Little is finally feeling good, more than two weeks after suffering a concussion on a controversial hit. The 31-year-old Winnipeg Jets centre is preparing to make his season debut, likely as early as tonight, as his squad tries to halt a two-game losing slide with a visit from the New York Islanders at Bell MTS Place.

"It’s kind of been a bit slower than I would have liked. But with these things now, you’ve got to be more cautious than you used to be. There’s different protocols in place now, so you’ve kind of got to follow that, follow the steps," Little said Wednesday after shedding his non-contact jersey and being a full participant in practice. 

Provided he wakes up this morning without any setbacks, Little is expected to take his familiar spot as the second-line centre, with speedsters in Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers on his wings.

"Right now, it’s just kind of day to day to see how I feel. Definitely feeling a lot better the last three, four days and passed all the tests and stuff. Haven’t had a lot of practice time, so (Wednesday) was definitely nice, just see how it goes one day at a time," Little said.

Little was knocked silly after Minnesota’s Luke Kunin caught him with a head shot in the final pre-season game on Sept. 29 in St. Paul. Following the game, Jets head coach Paul Maurice called it a "horse(bleep)" hit, but the NHL viewed it as accidental and didn’t impose any discipline on the Wild forward.

"It was a tough play. It seems like he was trying to jump between us. I think you have to be a bit aware of who’s around you and what’s around you. He actually texted me the next day and asked how I was doing and apologized. I thought that was a really nice gesture. It’s not something I’m looking back on, I’m looking forward now," Little said.

His last concussion was around a decade ago, and this one took a bit longer to develop.

"I didn’t feel that bad at first. I actually was thinking about trying to get back in the game when it happened. Thankfully, I didn’t. It’s kinda been a bit slower than I would have thought. But every player’s different," Little said.

"At first, it was some headaches, feeling off. And then I just felt slowed down a bit. And now everything’s starting to come back."

The excitement of getting into a game after watching the first eight from high above the rink was palpable Wednesday.

"Not very fun. I’ve played full seasons the last two years, a lot of hockey, a lot of games. I definitely forgot what it felt like to sit out and watch. It’s boring and it’s not fun," Little said. "You just work out and go to the gym and skate by yourself most days. Just to be out here practising with these guys again is awesome."

Little had 15 goals and 26 assists in 82 games last season, and his return will give the Jets a different look in the lineup. Only the top line of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine will stay intact.

Andrew Copp, who’s been centring the second line in Little’s absence, is expected to move back to wing and reunite with Adam Lowry. Jack Roslovic would round out that group. Rookie David Gustafsson will stay in, skating with Mathieu Perreault and Gabriel Bourque or Mason Appleton. Veteran Mark Letestu remains sidelined with an upper-body injury.

"Andrew Copp has played very, very well. Both the guys on the wings, for the most part — Nikky’s been strong, he’s had some good games for us. And Kyle’s kind of building, coming back in. With the three of them, there is some chemistry there between Kyle and Bryan. And some of it’s just having spent some time together. They know where each other’s going to be. There was a real learning experience to have Andrew there. And they have a little more of a comfort level with Bryan," Maurice said.

Both Connor and Ehlers were excited to have a familiar face between them at practice.

"We all missed him. We all know how important he is to the team. Such a veteran presence and such an unbelievable player, so it’s pretty exciting," Connor said. "We obviously know all his capabilities offensively. He just reads the game really well and knows where to be in certain spots. And that’s half the battle in the defensive zone, knowing what guy to have. He’s going to really help."

One big difference is that Little is a right shot, whereas Connor, Ehlers and Copp are all left shots. 

"So, certain plays, coming up in the rush, if he’s driving centre it’s a little easier to fit that play in with a right-shotter. Just little plays like that, and then he’s such a smart player out there and knows the game so well. It’s great to have him back," Connor said.

Ehlers has spent most of his NHL career playing with Little. He said getting a steadying, veteran presence back in the lineup, especially with so many young players and plenty of off-season turnover, will be a positive.

"We’ve got a new team, had new guys come in, so we’re obviously very excited and happy that he’s back now. We gotta get him going," Ehlers said.

The Jets will also welcome back rookie defenceman Ville Heinola for tonight’s game. He’ll replace Anthony Bitetto, who suffered a lower-body injury in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to Arizona. There’s no timetable for his return.

Heinola played the first five games, recording a goal and two assists, but has been a healthy scratch for the past three contests.

"There’s a lot of questions this year with the new defencemen and stuff. I think we’ve had some mixes, where we’ve played some really great hockey and hockey where we could play better. I think we’re still in the middle of putting that all together and kinda finding out what our game’s going to look like this year. We’re only a couple weeks into the season, so there’s still a lot to work on," Little said.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg 

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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