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Jets lock up Little

29-year-old centre signs six-year extension with Winnipeg

by Mitchell Clinton @MClinton007 / WinnipegJets.com

When it comes to contract talks, Bryan Little doesn't like to divulge too much information - not even to family members.

"They're always asking what the updates are and everyone kind of gets impatient," said Little. "I basically just tell them 'you might know more than I do. I don't know what's going on with my agent and the team, but I'll let you know what I do.'"

Even his own captain, Blake Wheeler, was kept somewhat in the dark throughout the negotiation process.

Now Little doesn't have to keep anything quiet.

The veteran centre put pen to paper on a six-year contract extension (with a $5.291 million AAV) that will keep the 29-year-old in Winnipeg for years to come.

Video: EXCLUSIVE | Bryan Little

"I'm really excited. I knew when we first started talking this summer that I wanted to stay here for a long time, and if possible maybe even finish my career here," said Little. "I'm really happy things worked out, and we were able to get something done.

"The reason I wanted to stay is because of the guys in the dressing room and the talent on this team. That was a big part of my decision. I think this team has a really bright future and I want to be a part of it."

With one year left on his current contract, the earliest an extension could be signed was July 1, 2017. Little said conversations between he and the team began during exit meetings after the regular season, and heated up about a month before training camp.

When he arrived in Winnipeg a few days before camp, it was time to sign on the dotted line.

"Now is kind of the best part. I do still want to be a competitive player and a key guy on this team for a long time," said Little. "There wasn't any celebration or anything like that, I just took a breath, and I was happy about it, and now it's time to get to work."

That work ethic is what Little is known for, on the ice and off. His off-ice work ethic was no more apparent than in the last two seasons. He finished the 2015-16 season missing 25 games due to a fractured vertebrae. Then after a summer of rehabilitation, he injured his knee in the 2016-17 home opener and missed another 23 games.

When he returned the line-up Nov. 29 against Edmonton, he had over 20 minutes of ice time, and had goals in three of his first four games.

In 59 games last season, Little scored 21 times (his fifth 20-plus goal season of his 10-year NHL career), and had 47 points.

Video: CAMP | Bryan Little

"He's one of those players around the league, has a quiet type of appreciation," said general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. When coaches are setting up against your team that they talk about. Hearing the things that Jamie (Kompon) says about playing against us, how they looked at players, looked at our team, and hearing what other coaches thought about it, Bryan's name was always one of those that when you start the game you might think he's one way, when you finish the game the coaches always comment how effective he is."

With word like that around the league, Cheveldayoff was thrilled to get Little under contract, but not solely for on-ice performance reasons.

Little's injuries the last two seasons also showed what he means to the team within the dressing room as well.

"You don't really appreciate him until you don't have him. We've had unfortunately two years where he's missed extended periods of time with freak injuries, but that's when it really hits home, the type of two-way player he is, and the quiet leadership he provides," said Cheveldayoff.

"Paul Maurice really said it best when he came in here. (When he was) sitting behind the desk in the media, you don't really appreciate it. But when you're behind the bench, you're constantly looking to call his name in any situation."

The Cambridge, ON native is effective in all three zones - the phrase '200-foot player' is commonly used to describe Little by his teammates - as well as the face-off dot. He's won over 50 per cent of his draws in each of the last two seasons, including a career high 55 per cent in 2016-17.

Video: CAMP | Kevin Cheveldayoff

"He's been an incredibly responsible player his entire career. That's what he excels at. He's on of our most responsible guys with the puck," said Wheeler. "He doesn't very often make costly mistakes or turn the puck over. At the same time, he has a knack for scoring big goals. Those guys are hard to find, especially guys up the middle that play really well defensively and can put the puck in the net. He does that consistently every year."

Wheeler has been a teammate of Little's since 2011. He's spent a lot of time on Little's wing, and needs no convincing of Little's value to the team.

"When he gets feeling it with his stick there aren't many guys that can put the puck in the net quite like he can. He's a guy who prides himself on his preparation and just how hard he works every single day," said Wheeler. "That's probably why he flies under the radar a little bit. You never really have anything negative to talk about him, he doesn't make many mistakes, battles on every puck. That's what makes it great playing with guys like that. You know where they're going to be."

Now, thanks to his contract extension, Little and his family know exactly where they'll be: Winnipeg.

Video: CAMP | Blake Wheeler

To a player who has spent his entire career with the same organization, that means a lot.

"That was my biggest fear. Sign a short-term deal, I'm gone, and the team is successful," said Little. "I've been with this organization through a lot of tough times. I feel like this year, at least on paper, is one of the better teams I've seen and played on. I'm really excited about the future of the team.

"The main thing is we know we've got a good team going forward. If we put everything together, it should show up on the ice. It's on us now. The management put us in a good spot with the right guys and a lot of depth. It's up to us to go out there and compete now."

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