Little comes back from injury to bring scoring, leadership to Jets

Little going a long way for Jets

WINNIPEG — Bryan Little wasn’t sure how effective he was going to be after losing months to injury, but the veteran centre’s scoring and leadership are going a long way for the Winnipeg Jets these days.

Little has collected 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 29 NHL games since missing 23 contests because of a knee injury he suffered in the team’s season-opener. He also sat out the final 25 games of last season with a fractured vertebra in his back, and absence has made his heart grow fonder for the game he loves to play.

“I definitely appreciate the times when you’re healthy and you’re feeling good,” Little said after Winnipeg’s practice Monday before the Jets headed to play the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday.

“I’ve been pretty lucky most of my career, other than a few bumps and bruises, not to have many major injuries.

“I was unfortunate to have two pretty bad ones back to back. The hardest thing was just staying positive and not getting frustrated or down. I mean, yeah it sucked, but it could have been worse.”

The 29-year-old Edmonton native is on a five-game point streak with six goals and three assists. Some of those points have come since he was slotted the past few games between the dynamic duo of sophomore sniper Nikolaj Ehlers and rookie all-star Patrik Laine.

“I didn’t know how I would be after missing that much hockey,” Little said. “I basically only had a few exhibition games in the eight months that I missed.

“It did take me a while. I’m happy with the production, but I feel like lately, the last couple weeks, even more, I’ve gotten back to my better game overall.”

Head coach Paul Maurice said the impact Little has had on the Jets (23-25-4) since his return “is huge for us in all parts our game.”

But then he paused because he wanted to backtrack.

“Bryan has gotten better each year and the player that he is now is better,” Maurice continued. “He’s a real good pro, he keeps working out.

“He’s just a quiet guy, right? We don’t hear much about him around the league or his importance. But he’s been so important to us â€” power play, faceoffs.”

It’s because of the 10-year veteran’s leadership qualities and skills that he moved Little with Ehlers and Laine.

“Every time I put him with the two young players, their game settles right down,” said Maurice, noting Little could easily be one of the club’s alternate captains.

“He has a great calming effect on them in terms of what they feel they need to try to get accomplished every time they touch the puck.”

Little described his new linemates as “good kids” and he enjoys tutoring them.

“I think I can bring a bit of stability,” Little said. “Those are two really young players. They’re definitely offensively gifted and they’re fun to play with. They’re talented.

“But I feel like for me I need to get them to talk a lot. I try to get them to talk a lot just because they are pretty quiet guys on the ice, so I feel like the more we communicate the better.”

Laine didn’t attend Monday’s practice as he was flying to St. Louis from the NHL all-star weekend in Los Angeles, but Ehlers said he soaks up Little’s advice.

“He’s a really smart guy on the ice,” Ehlers said. “He’s great defensively, obviously great offensively as well.

“He’s making some great plays that lets me and Patrik do what we do best, and the same for him. We complement each other really well us three, I think.”

Laine has 10 points during his team-high six-game point streak, calculated before and after he missed eight games with a concussion. Ehlers has five points in his last five outings.

Maurice revealed veteran netminder Ondrej Pavelec will start in net against the Blues (24-20-5). Connor Hellebuyck backstopped the Jets to a 5-3 win in Chicago last Thursday, the first of four straight games away from home.

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press

Canadian Press