But is he the second most valuable?
I think so (behind Mark Scheifele).
Bryan Little has never been the best player on the Jets, but given the role he’s grown into over the last several years, it’s foolish to overlook his impact. With the emergence of Scheifele as a bonafide top line center, Bryan Little has quietly been demoted into one of the best second line centers in the league.
His value lies with the fact that he is indeed, a centerman. With a team that is so young up the middle, losing Bryan Little 3 minutes into the season was a bigger blow than almost any other veteran going down. Scheifele, Lowry, and Petan have done their best in filling Little’s void, and Petan has shown some great playmaking ability. But make no mistake about it, this team has sorely missed a player that has Little’s capabilities resumé.
If a winger goes down, it’s not the end of the world. Wheeler, Ehlers, Stafford, Laine – you name it – when any of them misses time it affects the team much less. We have plenty of options on the wing to fill that gap. Would you replace Laine’s shot? No, but you’d still be able to move up an offensive winger like Kyle Connor. Would you replace Wheeler’s tenacity? Of course not, but we have other wingers who could fill his spot without altering the makeup of the team too much.
Little, unfortunately, was, and is a completely different story. Adam Lowry and Nic Petan were both winning 46% of draws. Scheifele, was even worse, at 43%. Tonight Paul Maurice was able to add a player to the lineup who’s been 50% for basically his whole career. That’s obviously nothing stellar, but having a veteran two way centerman who can win a draw or two will go a long, long way into how Maurice plays his matchups.
Take an opponent like the Ducks, for example. Getzlaf and Kesler are their centers and you can bet Maurice would play Scheif and Little against them. Now, in the defensive zone, he has the option of tossing out say a Perreault-Little-Armia line to go counter Getzlaf. They’re all defensively responsible, but they can play the offensive side of the puck too. If you sub in Lowry for Little there, it’s not quite the same – the line has a much more defensive look to it and their goal is to simply shutdown Getzlaf. With Little, it’s to shut them down and to outscore them.
The top-6 tonight against the Devils was Ehlers-Scheifele-Laine and Stafford-Little-Wheeler. Both of those lines can compete against the game’s best, and both of those lines can produce solid offense. If Maurice wanted to use Tanev-Lowry-Dano as a shutdown line, then that would allow Scheifele’s line to go haywire on the team’s third and fourth lines and lower defensive pairings.
Little’s return doesn’t all of a sudden make this team some sort of juggernaut, but having him down the middle gives Maurice three things: a two way presence, veteran consistency, and some face off flexibility. It wasn’t long ago that Little centered Ladd and Frolik in a shudown role, so adding that defensive awareness back to a youthful hockey squad will make a world of difference.
If this team’s injury problems reside for even a portion of December, it’s possible that December and January become real meaningful months for this hockey squad. For the first time this season they (should) have their 4 best centermen for an extended stretch of time, and given how young their replacements this team should look – and play – very different.