WINNIPEG - Bryan Little finally got to shed the non-contact jersey he's been in since early October.
The veteran Jets forward was cleared for contact and was a regular participant in Wednesday's practice. He's been recovering from a concussion sustained in the final preseason game in Minnesota against the Wild.
"It's been a bit slower than I would have liked. With these things now, you have to be more cautious than you used to be," Little said. "There are different protocols in place now. You have to follow that and follow the steps. Today was the first contact practice and it felt pretty good."
Both Little and head coach Paul Maurice stopped short of saying the 31-year-old will be in the line-up on Thursday. They want to make sure he comes back to the rink tomorrow feeling just as good as he does today.
"I've passed all the tests but haven't had a lot of practice time," said Little. "I talked to Paul. It's wake up and see how you feel. The biggest thing for me is just getting that speed back because I haven't had a lot of full practices with the team. Today was basically my first one where I participated in everything."
Video: PRACTICE | Bryan Little
Little skated between Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor during line rushes on Wednesday. Connor said Little is just as effective in the defensive zone as the offensive zone.
"He's a smart player out there and knows the game so well. It's great to have him back," said Connor.
"We know all his capabilities offensively. He just reads the game really well and knows when to be in certain spots and that's half the battle in the defensive zone - knowing which guy to have. It's great to have him back. I think he's really going to help our game out."
The rest of the Jets lines looked like this with one day to go before they finish a season series with the New York Islanders:
With Little back in the fold, Andrew Copp was moved from centre (between Connor and Ehlers) to the wing with Adam Lowry, where he spent the majority of last season.
"Andrew Copp has played very well," Maurice said. "Both the guys on the wings for the most part - Nik has been strong and Kyle is kind of building coming back in. I think the three of them, there is some chemistry there between Kyle and Bryan.
"Some of it is just having spent some time together and knowing where the other is going to be. So it was a real learning experience to have Andrew there."
Video: PRACTICE | Paul Maurice
Copp has three points this season and has the second-best face-off percentage on the team at 54.21 per cent.
The Connor, Copp, Ehlers trio controlled play when they were on the ice, carrying a 57.66 per cent shot attempt percentage at even strength. With limited time together last season, Little, Ehlers, and Connor also had strong possession numbers, generating 59.74 of the shot attempts during five-on-five play.
"You create more and more chemistry as you go on. I've played with Bryan pretty much since I got here. We've been playing together on and off for four or five years you create some chemistry," said Ehlers.
"But me and Copper, whoever we played with, we had some good chemistry too. He's a great centre. He's got the skill to be there."
So while nothing is finalized yet, Little is looking forward to getting back in the line-up when that day comes.
After back-to-back seasons of playing 82 games, he's not used to sitting out.
"It's boring and it's not fun," said Little. "You just work out, go to the gym, and skate by yourself most days. Just to be out here practicing with these guys again is awesome."
Video: PRACTICE | Nikolaj Ehlers
KUNIN REACHES OUT
It was Minnesota Wild forward Luke Kunin that caught Little with a shoulder in the final preseason game on the schedule back on Sept. 29.
The injury limited Little to just 1:07 of ice time in the game.
"It was a tough play. It seemed like he was trying to jump in between us. I think you still have to be aware of what's around you and who is around you," said Little.
"He actually texted me the next day and asked how I was doing and apologized. I thought that was a real nice gesture. It's not something I'm looking back on. I'm looking forward now."
Little has been experimenting with a tinted visor during practice the last couple of days. He got the idea from Copp, who has been wearing one since he had a concussion of his own in December of last season.
"He had some interesting stuff to say and thought it really helped him with the lights and everything, then he got used to it and liked the way it felt," said Little. "I thought I'd give it a try in practice and see how it goes. So far it has been pretty good."
Video: PRACTICE | Kyle Connor
Anthony Bitetto didn't take part in practice on Wednesday after leaving Tuesday's 4-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes with a lower-body injury.
Maurice said Bitetto is day-to-day. Ville Heinola - who hasn't played since the home opener against the Minnesota Wild - will draw back into the line-up against the Islanders on Thursday.
The team is also waiting for tests to be done on forward Mark Letestu, so an update won't be available until those are completed.
As for Nathan Beaulieu, who also sustained an injury in the preseason finale, he's progressing with his recovery from an upper-body injury. At the time his injury was announced on Oct. 1, Maurice gave a timeline of four weeks.
"Four weeks is when the window opens. We're comfortable with what we know with the healing now," said Maurice. "That would be a Sunday, the 27th, the practice day after the Regina game and prior to the Anaheim game. That's when we'll look for that window to open."