Teams seek number one centres almost as much as they seek number one defenceman or all-star goalies. The Winnipeg Jets have been fortunate to have a number one centre in Bryan Little, who has been a mainstay for the Jets/Thrashers for his NHL career.
The play of Bryan Little often goes unnoticed with more prominent centres like Jonathon Toews, Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar and Henrik Sedin (to name a few). However, with his two-way play, he deserves to be included in conversation with those players as a prominent centre.
Which is why when Little enters the line up, for the first time really this season, Jets fans should be excited because of what Little brings to the lineup.
However, if the goal is to win with this young lineup, then you need players like Bryan Little more than ever to provide the stability for young players. Not because of character and grit that is typical of media 4th line media favourites. But, because of how much Little has already been relied upon offensively and defensively.
Which is why all bets are off when Little is inserted back into the lineup. Scheifele, Perreault, Petan, Lowry, Copp and Burmistrov have done an alright job in rotating through the bottom nine as centres. Petan has especially shown glimpses of what is to come in future seasons.
Since the 2011-12 season, Bryan Little has posted a Corsi For percentage of 52.91% in 5v5 situations. As well, he has posted a shooting percentage of 8.32 percent since 2011-12 and has had an expected Goals For over 60 minutes of play of 2.87.
Little has had a large impact on all ends of the ice and his advanced statistics point to him being able to push play into the opposing team’s zone. On top of his play being indicative of being a good offensive producer, Little’s results do affirm his advanced statistics. Since 2011-12, he has been on pace for at least 50 points and this is including the lockout season.
However, the area where Little may be the most welcome is on the penalty kill. The past two seasons, Little has played a major role among the Jets’ penalty killers.
For example, since the 2014-15 seaosn, Little has averaged close to 2 minutes in 4v5 situations for the Jets. In 2014-15, Little played 6 and a half minutes on the 3 man penalty kill and just over 3 during his injury riddled season of 2015-16.
When you consider Scheifele played around 55 seconds of 4v5 penalty kill over the 2015-16 season and no 3v5, Little’s penalty kill load was decently high.
However, this season, Scheifele has played 17 minutes on the 4v5 penalty kill already. That’s close to half of last season’s amount of kill time in a third of the games.
Once Little is up to speed, there is no reason why the penalty kill can see a jump in performance with the addition of a player who is a proven penalty killer. With Little on the penalty kill, the chances of players like Thorburn and Stuart being out on the kill at the same time will hopefully be reduced to 0.
Where Does Little Fit?
Who will Little play with? That is the question. If the Jets are able to keep Scheifele, Ehlers and Laine together as a 1a line, then a line of Little, Connor and Wheeler may be a potent 1b line.
However, if you look at the With or Without You Chart below, you will notice that Little played really well with Joel Armia.
Little’s chemistry and ability to make players better makes his linemates interchangeable, especially when considering game situations and injuries. If the Jets want a more balanced approach to scoring, then something like Connor, Little and Armia may happen with Wheeler on the third line. The Jets want to score a goal fast, then put Ehlers, Little and Wheeler on a line.
The Jets have a very good problem with the interchangeable parts. One thing I would be interested to see is Little play on Petan’s wing and switching out for faceoffs with him, especially if the Jets want to develop Petan as a centre man.
The Jets will see an increase in performance once Little makes his return and really, his regular season debut. He has only played 3-4 shifts in the 2016-17 season, good for less than 3 minutes of play. It is easy to forget what Little brings because he has not been around for the 2016-17 season and the Jets have been able to stay afloat with their young team.
However, lets not kid ourselves. Bryan Little is still a number one centre and this is the player the Jets will be getting back. He is not a replacement level player, but an elite two-way centre that teams covet. He will be able to take some of the load off of Scheifele and able to mentor younger players through his play and not just his presence in the locker room.
When teams talk about players with heart, grit and character the need to look to people like Bryan Little who can make a positive impact in the locker room because he has the play to back up who he is as a person in the locker room. There is a reason why he has won the Dan Snyder Memorial award twice and it’s not his ability to hit or fight. Little has shown character in the room through perseverance and commitment to the Jets.
Once Little returns, look for an even greater increase in performance from Scheifele. Look for stronger play from guys like Andrew Copp and Nic Petan, who will benefit from decreased defensive responsibilities. Moreover, expect a renewed excitement coming from the dressing room and for Jets fans.