It must have all seemed easy to Bryan Little when he scored 31 goals as a 20-year-old in his first full season in the NHL.
It was 2008-09 and Little exploded onto the scene in Atlanta, scoring 12 times on the power play and finishing second on the team in goals, behind only Ilya Kovalchuk.
Little’s name became a hot topic among sports pundits and hockey poolies, who figured a guy who can score 31 goals at such a young age should be good for even bigger totals in subsequent seasons.
Well, not so much.
He matched that 31-goal total all right, but it took him two seasons and he played almost every Thrashers game.
“I went from one extreme to another where everything was going in for me that one season and I was getting so many lucky bounces,” Little, a 23-year-old centre, said Sunday after Winnipeg Jets practice at MTS Centre. “I was playing real well throughout the whole year and I didn’t really have any slumps.
“The next year I had a slow start. I was hitting posts and it just got in my head. I lost confidence in myself. It was a tough year and a long year and, believe me, I heard about it a lot.”
Now that the Thrashers have relocated to Winnipeg, he’s hearing about it again.
A lot of experts believe the Jets are going to have trouble putting the puck in the net, but if Little can find the form he displayed three seasons ago, it will go a long way to dispelling that belief.
The development of young players, like Little, left-winger Evander Kane, 19, and centre Alex Burmistrov, 19, will be key to the team’s push for a playoff spot.
“There’s more pressure on me, there’s more pressure on younger guys to step up and score,” Little said. “That’s going to be on our shoulders and we’re excited to handle that kind of pressure.”
Little admits he had a poor season in 2009-10, when he had only 13 goals and 34 points in 79 games, but was happy with the way he picked up his game last season.
He had 18 goals and 48 points and finished the year with a team-high plus-minus rating of plus-11.
Things were especially good when Little found himself on a line between captain Andrew Ladd, who had a career year, and Blake Wheeler, who came over in a trade-deadline deal with the Boston Bruins.
“We did have great chemistry when we picked up Wheeler, right off the bat,” Little said. “Last year I had a pretty good year even though I didn’t come close to getting 30 again. I just felt I was more consistent and more mature and better in my own end. I was more well-rounded but I still want to contribute more offensively and this year is hopefully going to be better for me.”
The Jets plan to do whatever is necessary to help Little and some other younger players find their offensive groove.
“We have a lot of players whose best years are in front of them,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “They have a tremendous amount of potential and we are going to let them grow.”
Cheveldayoff said the Jets need more production from players like Little, Kane and Burmistrov, but the management team is not about to rush anything.
“We think with the coach’s guidance and direction that potential can be realized bit by bit,” Cheveldayoff said. “But again, there’s no quick fix. There’s nothing to say that just because they’re in an exciting environment and an environment that is hockey-crazy, that things are going to accelerate exponentially for them.
“If they think they’re just automatically going to go from Point A to Point C without going to Point B, it’s not gonna happen.”
It’s too bad, because it sounds like an offensive quick fix is precisely what the Jets need.