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Little makes a big difference

Veteran forward didn't miss a beat after returning from injury

by Mitchell Clinton @MClinton007 / WinnipegJets.com

The 2016-17 season didn't start the way Bryan Little would have liked.

After missing the final 25 games of the 2015-16 season with a fractured vertebrae, the 29-year-old played a mere 2:48 in the home opener against Carolina before suffering a knee injury that kept him out for another 23 games.

But when he returned, the veteran forward went on a tear.

He scored three goals in his first four games, and even played over 20 minutes in his first game back from the injury on Nov. 29.

Overall, he finished with 21 goals - the fifth time he's notched over 20 in his career - and 47 points in 59 games.

"He's one of those players around the league, has a quiet type of appreciation," said Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. "When coaches are setting up against your team that they talk about. Hearing the things that (assistant coach) 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."

Little had a number of different wingers as the season unfolded, but he finished the season with Mathieu Perreault and Patrik Laine flanking him on either side.

His experience playing with some of the youth on the roster this season gave him an appreciation for the amount of growth those players made since training camp opened.

"These guys are growing up fast. They're becoming leaders on their own. Some of the best players on our team are the youngest," said Little. "I think they need to grow up fast and (well).

"Our young guys are only going to get better, and they're only going to improve."

Of course, improvement is something Little knows the whole team will need to do heading into next season. The seven-game win streak to finish the season is a nice footnote, but Little knows every player in the dressing room wants much more than that. They want to be playing past game 82.

Offensively, the Jets finished seventh in the NHL in goals scored (246) and goals scored per game (3.00). Where the improvement needs to come, according to Little, is at the other end of the ice, where the Jets allowed 255 goals - fourth most in the league.

"We score enough goals and we won quite a few games, but it's those losses and goals against are the biggest thing. We have to get better defensively," said Little. "I don't think this team is ever going to have a problem getting offense and scoring goals. We just have to work on keeping the puck out of the net."

Next season is also the final one on Little's five-year deal signed back in July of 2013. Cheveldayoff says what Little brings to the table earned him an extension back then, and while the salary cap will always provide a challenge, he's hoping to find a solution for both sides.

"When both sides are desirous of getting something done, it generally works out for both sides," said Cheveldayoff. "He can play a real solid 200-foot game, smart player, conscientious player, and someone we chose to extend once when the opportunity came. It goes back to the salary cap management question, you have to be judicious in how it works."

Little has seen what this team is capable of, and while things didn't go the way the club would have liked this season, he thinks it isn't far away from getting into the post season for the first time since 2014-15.

"We have a bright future. It's frustrating not playing for anything again and having that long summer that we've had before. I think everyone is looking at next year already," said Little. "We've shown what we're capable of at times this season, especially the last seven games. I think we have some real good stuff ahead.

"I definitely can't wait to get back next year."

FIRST GOAL BACK FROM INJURY

After recording an assist prior to his knee injury in the home opener against Carolina, Little scored his first of the season in only his second game back.

Video: EDM@WPG: Little scores 35 seconds into the game 

NUMBER 400

Little recorded his 400th career NHL point this season, when he and Blake Wheeler assisted on Mathieu Perreault's goal against Montreal.

 Video: MTL@WPG: Perreault roofs Wheeler's feed from in front

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