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Little at the Center

by Staff Writer / Winnipeg Jets

The distance from right wing to center is only a few feet.

For Bryan Little, it's light years.

That's how far the fourth-year pro, selected by the Thrashers with the 12th overall pick in 2006, is from past years.

After three seasons of playing primarily at right wing, the 23-year-old Little, is back at center. Moving that little bit to the left has made all the difference in the world.

Heading into Saturday night's game against the New York Rangers at Philips Arena, Little had already matched last season's output for goals (13) and game-winning goals (1), and is one off his total on the power play (2).

Little scores one of his team-leading shootout goals against Boston's Tim Thomas.

With his shootout goal on Thursday night against Tampa Bay, he now has a team-high three shootout goals and is converting at 50 percent (3-for-6), tied for seventh in the League — he's converted his last three attempts. His 16.3 shooting percentage is double last year's and approaching his career-best 18.0, set in 2008-09, when he had 51 points and 31 goals.

Regardless of whether he passes or even reaches 51 points — he's at 27 with 39 games left — his numbers on the defensive side are making 2010-11 better all-around than '08-09.

Little is cleaning up his end of the ice, at an unprecedented rate, with a team-best plus-14. Being and feeling at home on the ice helps.

"It's the first time I've played center in about a year. I'm trying to be pretty safe and I take pride in our D-zone play and not give up anything," said Little, whose best plus-minus in a full NHL season is -5 in '08-09 (he was minus-2 in 46 games as a rookie). "Some credit goes to our defense and goaltending with that, too."

While plus-minus can be a misleading stat the fact that Little is among League leaders in takeaways (47, fifth), has two shorthanded goals, tied for the team lead with Andrew Ladd and one behind the NHL lead — even that he's on the PK at all — shows his improvement on the defensive end. Not that he can't kill penalties. In four seasons with the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts he tallied 11 shorthanded goals, six during the '06-07 season. He just never got a shot with the Thrashers.

"This is basically the first time that I've penalty-killed since I've gotten to the NHL," he said. "I'm just happy they had confidence in me to put me out there.

"They want us to be aggressive and if we get a chance to go up ice. I like that," he added. "It's part of my game and I'd rather be on the penalty kill than be on the bench. I'm happy they gave me the opportunity to do that."

Thrashers Head Coach Craig Ramsay believes that Little is only going to get better on the PK.

"His quickness and his stick are two things that will allow him to be a top penalty-killer," said Ramsay. "He's quick, he can attack and recover and he has a very good stick. Put those together and now it's just a matter of figuring it all out, putting it together in the big picture. But he's got the tools to get the job done and he has the willingness to get the job done. You grow into those roles but he's already shown great flashes of it and his commitment down low in battles is wonderful."

Teammates are impressed by Little's skills and instincts.

"It seems like he's in the right spots all the time and, obviously, his speed is one of his greatest assets. He gets up and down the ice really fast," said Ladd. "He's a smart player who does everything well. He wins big draws, he plays PK, power play and does kind of everything."

"[Little's] smart," added right wing and linemate Anthony Stewart. "He's always in the right position. You know he's going to be supporting you at all times. He's great for the D and he's a good puck-handler. He knows, when he gives you the puck he has enough speed to keep up and to get it back. He's a playmaker, he's a goal-scorer, he's pretty much a Jack of All Trades out there."

In the 3-2 shootout win in Florida on Monday, Little did anything and everything down the stretch as he scored one goal and assisted on another in Atlanta's two-goal outburst in 46 seconds in the final 1:58 to knot up what had been a 2-0 deficit. Later, he tied the shootout 1-1, beating Panther goaltender Scott Clemmensen with a wrist shot. The Thrashers would take the lead in the next round on a goal by Alex Burmistrov and win it when Ondrej Pavelec denied Cory Stillman.

The win snapped a four-game losing streak and gave Little his third multi-point game in the last 10 and eighth of the season — he had seven all last year. The effort couldn't have come at a better time for the Thrashers.

"I think it shows what kind of character we have coming back and not giving up," he said. "I think it's going to boost our confidence and get something started. But it's just one game and we need to put together a bunch of good ones before the break. It's a big win for us and now we're looking ahead."

Little is eagerly looking ahead to spending more time roaming center with Evander Kane on his left when he gets back into the lineup and Stewart on his right. The trio has scored 14 points in the last 10 games (6 goals, 8 assists) and is enjoying the chemistry.

"Playing with "Kaner" and "Stewey" is really easy," said Little. "They're both really fast guys and they're both big guys. They work hard and we've been clicking pretty good lately."

Little's wings are equally enthusiastic.

"Bryan's a great player," said Kane. "He brings a lot of speed and a lot of skill. We've worked well together when we've played together. He's really starting to come into his own and be the dominant player he can be. It's been great for me to see that."

"We know that if we get a turnover, we can jump on our horse and catch some teams flat-footed," added Stewart. "We have a little of everything on that line. We've been getting a lot of chances and things are starting to go in and it's exciting to be on the line with them."

The best part for Little is being in the center of it.


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