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Little looking for more in big role

Bryan Little has been anointed as Winnipeg’s No. 2 centre behind Mark Scheifele, taking at least some of the guesswork out of Winnipeg Jets training camp.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice’s preference is to slot the versatile veteran between youngsters Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers to start the upcoming NHL season.

The job comes with a heavy set of responsibilities, certainly, more than the organization wants to heap on 21-year-old forward Jack Roslovic this early in his career. Roslovic spent the bulk of his shift work through 31 games of the 2017-18 season on the wing.

“We all here see Jack Roslovic as a full-time centre-ice man. We think it’s there. But he didn’t start the season with us last year. He had a real nice Vegas (playoff) series. He spent some time on the wing and I didn’t mind him in the middle. But some patience (is needed) with this young man before we hand him the keys to drive the other two,” Maurice said Friday from the Iceplex.

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Bryan Little has been anointed as Winnipeg’s No. 2 centre behind Mark Scheifele, taking at least some of the guesswork out of Winnipeg Jets training camp.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice’s preference is to slot the versatile veteran between youngsters Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers to start the upcoming NHL season.

The job comes with a heavy set of responsibilities, certainly, more than the organization wants to heap on 21-year-old forward Jack Roslovic this early in his career. Roslovic spent the bulk of his shift work through 31 games of the 2017-18 season on the wing.

“We all here see Jack Roslovic as a full-time centre-ice man. We think it’s there. But he didn’t start the season with us last year. He had a real nice Vegas (playoff) series. He spent some time on the wing and I didn’t mind him in the middle. But some patience (is needed) with this young man before we hand him the keys to drive the other two,” Maurice said Friday from the Iceplex.

“There’s a lot of legwork that goes to playing centre between Patty and Nikky.”

Little played all 82 games a year ago, his first season since 2013-14 without an injury. He finished last season — his 11th in the NHL — with just 16 goals, his lowest total since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when he deposited just seven.

He played a chunk of the year on the second line between Laine and Ehlers, with limited production. That lack of cohesiveness troubled him at the time, but he hasn’t shaken his belief that something special will result from the reunion, adding a clean slate might be exactly what the trio needs.

“It’s just learning from each other. We’re all kind of different players in our own right. It takes time to build chemistry. It’s pretty rare that you have it instantly with a full line,” Little said.

“We had times last year in games where I thought we played really well and had a lot of chemistry, and then there were times when we struggled a bit. It’s just getting that consistency, getting used to each other, practising with each other. The more we’re around each other, it’s going to make a difference.”

Little, in the first year of a six-year, US$31.75 million contract, said he’s eager to slide in and play delivery man between a pair of creative, fleet-footed wingers who crave the puck on their sticks.

“It’s awesome. I haven’t played with many guys like that, especially (Laine), where they’re so good shooting the puck. The closest guy for me would be (Ilya) Kovalchuk, where you get him the puck in a certain area and you just had the feeling that it was going to go in,” he said.

“For me, I want to get those guys the puck in good positions as much as I can. I don’t want to take away from my own offence, but those guys are the pure shooters. For me, it’s just fun to work with them and fun to watch them.” – Bryan Little on linemates Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine

“For me, I want to get those guys the puck in good positions as much as I can. I don’t want to take away from my own offence, but those guys are the pure shooters. For me, it’s just fun to work with them and fun to watch them.”

He said adjustments have to be made when skating alongside players who frequently weave in and out of their lanes, especially for someone who benefited for years from the familiarity of having Blake Wheeler and ex-Jet Andrew Ladd on either side of him.

“I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier to play with (Laine and Ehlers). It’s just different. Blake and Andrew, we were all pretty up-and-down-the-ice type of guys, straight-line guys,” Little said. “Those guys, they’re kind of the younger generation. They’re more dynamic, they’re really creative, they like to go side to side and carry the puck a lot. It’s just all of us kind of getting used to each other and working together to make it work.”

Paul Stastny had been a terrific fit between the two Europeans in his stint with the team, but he’ll play for Vegas this season after signing a three-year, US$19.5-million deal with the Golden Knights on July 1.

Laine, who had Little as his centre for chunks of time during his rookie campaign, sees plenty of similarities between the 30-something centres.

“(Little) is a really good player. It wasn’t maybe going as well as we thought at first. I think we had some really good streaks my first year and he’s a really good player, he’s easy to play with and he can pass the puck really well and he’s kind of the same type of player as Paul was when he was playing with me and Nik,” Laine said. “He’s a veteran guy and he knows what to do with two young guys and I think we’ll be a good trio when the season starts.”

Will the line stick together during the pre-season?

“If that’s coach’s plan that we’re going to play as a line then, obviously, I want to practise playing with that line. I think that would the smartest thing to do. But there’s some smarter guys in the coach’s room and they know what they’re doing, so I don’t have to start analyzing that,” Laine said.

Little also patrolled the wing on the third line late in the 2017-18 season when he was bugged by an injury that hampered his ability to take draws.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he’s always valued Little’s versatility and attention to detail.

“He can play with skilled players, he can play a responsible two-way game, he can check. He’s someone Paul can call on in any situation, and if you pair with offensive players, he can handle the defensive side of it.

“So, he’s someone that is a utility-knife kind of player when it comes to that, with good experience,” Cheveldayoff said.

“He’s a quiet leader, he’s a guy that you maybe don’t hear the vocal side of it, but there’s a tremendous amount of respect for his game and his value to the team.”

jason.bell@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
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).

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