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Photo Credit: © Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Bryan Little Needs Better Players To Play With

Patrik Laine didn’t name any names when he talked to a Finnish newspaper about wanting to play with the best players on the Winnipeg Jets and that he instead had to settle for playing with “the guys I’m told to play.” But much like a sub-tweet on Twitter, we all kinda knew who he was talking about.

Last season when the Jets were playing even strength five on five hockey, Patrik Laine and Bryan Little were on the ice together for 628 minutes. No other forward comes close to that total when playing with Laine. Kyle Connor came in second with 328 minutes. For as much hype there is about Nik Ehlers being Laine’s best bud and someone who can go on the other wing with Laine, he came in at less than 200 minutes with Laine.

Laine didn’t name any names, but he was talking about playing with Bryan Little.

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It happens to all of us. We all say things that come out the wrong way, or can be perceived as a slight on others. You don’t think of it that way when you say it because that’s not where your head is at, but the moment you either hear yourself say it, or you hear or read it back to yourself after you’ve said it, or you see others reactions to it, you realize how those words can mean something a lot harsher to someone else.

Laine was talking about wanting to play with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, aka: The best players on the Winnipeg Jets.

He didn’t ever say playing with Bryan Little was a burden or an anchor bringing him down, but that’s how it comes across when you say you want to play with the best players and currently, that’s not what is happening.

For what it’s worth, as soon as the comments were made public and Laine realized how it would be perceived he reached out to Little who has been around the game long enough, understands what Patrik was getting at and very much aware of his status as a player compared to that of Wheeler and Scheifele.

What To Do About Little

It’s been hard not to feel for Bryan Little over not just the last few days, but over the last two seasons. Little has been a steady and consistent 40 point performer for the Jets/Thrashers franchise over the last 12 seasons. He’s been known in his career as defensively responsible in his own end of the ice and can hold his own in the offensive side of the things. When he signed a six year, $31.75 million contract extension two years ago, it was initially seen as a bit of an overpay perhaps, but also as a bit of a reward for having been a loyal soldier of sorts that would be a key part of a Jets second line with Laine and Ehlers that would rival most team’s top lines.

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As Scott Billeck of the Winnipeg Sun explained recently, putting Little between Laine and Ehlers just made too much sense at the time.

In theory, the line should work. One creative, albeit unpredictable at times, winger in Ehlers who drives shots for, a defensively responsible centre in Bryan Little, and Laine, a threat so grave to opposing goalies that often, it’s only Laine’s inaccuracy that prevents the puck from hitting the back of the net.

In practice, the theory has been debunked. But instead of walking away from it, the Jets went back, again and again, poking it to see if there are any signs of life.

There are multiple reasons it hasn’t worked out that that go beyond just Little’s play. To make matters even more complicated, Wheeler with Scheifele became a thing that worked out pretty well on the top line, while Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev also matched up well on the third line. Little and Laine have seen different third wheels join them through the last two seasons but the constant has mostly been them together almost by default until the trade deadline.

For the last two trade deadlines, the Jets have traded for a center who can play on the second line with Laine, thus adding to the perception that Little is the problem not to mention leaving Bryan in lineup limbo. Last season after the deadline saw Kevin Hayes brought in to play with Laine and Ehlers, Little was put with Lowry and Tanev and saw a lot more time starting in the defensive side of the ice.

If and when Patrik Laine returns to the Jets, Paul Maurice and the coaching staff are going to have to figure out who he plays with, but figuring out where Little should be in the lineup also needs to be a top priority as well. With a cap hit just north of $5.2 million he’s too expensive to keep in a bottom six role, but based on his past season there are only a few players – Mathieu Perreault and Nik Ehlers being the two lone forwards – that seemingly got better with Little which makes things difficult for everyone involved.

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Little at this point in time may be best suited for third line duty. He may be overpriced for it, but there is no reason he couldn’t excel in that role and the bottom line right now should be about the Jets maximizing the talent they have on their roster regardless of what they’re paying. The contracts and money are for General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to figure out and not a guide for Paul Maurice to use as to who should get what kind of ice time.

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Bryan Little can produce better results than he had last season, it’s just a matter of putting him with better linemates.

Not that I’m naming names or anything.