Little’s man in the middle

Winnipeg Jets veteran centre Bryan Little admits real pressure — not just the perceived kind — comes with being the set-up man for goal scorer Patrik Laine.

So, too, does unabashed optimism.

Little, set to begin his 12th NHL season, has spent nearly all of training camp with the young Finn to his right and either Nikolaj Ehlers or Mathieu Perreault on the left wing. All signs now point to Perreault as the successful candidate when the Jets begin the 2018-19 season Thursday night in St. Louis against the Blues.

Laine ripped it up in his first two seasons, scoring 36 and 44 goals, respectively, with 50 not out of the realm of possibility for Year 3. That provides a golden opportunity for Winnipeg’s second-line centre to post career numbers — if harmony is achieved.

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Winnipeg Jets veteran centre Bryan Little admits real pressure — not just the perceived kind — comes with being the set-up man for goal scorer Patrik Laine.

So, too, does unabashed optimism.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little is feeling pressure to perform while centreing the team's second line.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets’ Bryan Little is feeling pressure to perform while centreing the team’s second line.

Little, set to begin his 12th NHL season, has spent nearly all of training camp with the young Finn to his right and either Nikolaj Ehlers or Mathieu Perreault on the left wing. All signs now point to Perreault as the successful candidate when the Jets begin the 2018-19 season Thursday night in St. Louis against the Blues.

Laine ripped it up in his first two seasons, scoring 36 and 44 goals, respectively, with 50 not out of the realm of possibility for Year 3. That provides a golden opportunity for Winnipeg’s second-line centre to post career numbers — if harmony is achieved.

“If you’re going to be playing those type of minutes and be put in that position, there’s definitely a bit of pressure to produce,” Little, just six weeks shy of his 31st birthday, said Monday. “The good thing is we have so many guys who can score… if you do have a couple of off games, you trust the rest of the team’s going to pick up the slack. But at the same time we have to be those guys that are there for the big ones.”

Genuine harmony has yet to materialize; Laine was scoreless in the pre-season, while Little tallied once and Perrault chipped in a power-play goal in the final test against the New Jersey Devils.

Little, whose six-year deal that pays him US$5.29 million a season until the summer of 2024 just kicked in, senses the trio is close.

“I think Perreault is one of those guys everyone likes to play with. He works hard every game, he’s on the puck. He can create a lot just by how tenacious he is. We kind of think the same way out there. We think if we’re fast and aggressive, we’ll get the puck more and that’s when we can create offence,” said Little, who registered 16 goals and 43 points last season, his first season uninterrupted by injury since 2013-14. “And plus, when we do get the puck back, we’re passing to one of the best shooters in the league, so that definitely, helps.

“I feel like we started to feel a bit better the second half of the last exhibition game (against the Devils). We started to play with the puck a lot more. Especially this week in practice, I thought we’ve been having good practices and getting a feel for each other more. I think we’re ready for that first one.”

It’s hard to know how long the unit will have to demonstrate chemistry, as Jets head coach Paul Maurice has never been hesitant to shuffle the forward deck. For now, no immediate contingency plan exists if things go sour for Little, Laine and Perreault.

But Maurice has maintained confidence throughout camp he’s got the right man for the job.

“It’s interesting. So (Little) is playing with one of the best shooters, maybe in the game. And one of the best shooters in the game gets to do a lot of good things because Bryan works as hard as he does,” said Maurice. “I agree he’s going to put pressure on himself. But it’s not to keep Patty or whoever’s on his wing happy. It’s to play the right game so we have an outside chance of hitting 52 wins again, making the playoffs and being a good hockey team. That’s the key.

“He’s a good pro. He came to the rink the right way this year. He feels a responsibility to our team to help his linemates and help us win, and that’s a really good thing.”

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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