Bryan Little has long been an underrated presence for both the Atlanta Thrashers and the Winnipeg Jets, but if last season was indicative of anything, he could start being a problem. Little has been in the NHL for eleven years and seemed to start to decline last season at age 29. Remember, the new contract that pays Little roughly $5.3 million a season for the next six seasons does not even kick in until this year.
The problem with Little is struggled last year. He did not look like he belonged with Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine. While the line produced, something looked off with it. Maybe it was an off year or maybe it was a sign of what is to come. If it was, the Jets need a contingency plan in place on what they are going to do about the second line centre position. Maybe they make another trade. Maybe the move Jack Roslovic into that slot. Maybe Little bounces back or they switch up wingers to positive effects.
The problem is if Little does not bounce back this season, the Jets will have a hard to move contract. While a bad contract is tradeable, you have to sweeten the pot. Look at Steve Mason: the Jets traded him to the Montreal Canadiens (who subsequently bought him out) alongside Joel Armia who is a very useful player.
One thing the Jets could try if they need to revive Little and make his contract workable is moving him to wing. Forward positions in hockey are becoming more fluid and some centres find success at wing. Little has a track record from the team’s time in Atlanta and the Jets might be able to make him more useful to the team. Of course this could all be moot and Little could bounce back with nothing changing.
The bigger conundrum with players like Little, Blake Wheeler, and Dustin Byfuglien is paying them for their past play when they are over 30. While you need veterans on a team, you also need them at a price that will not affect re-signing the true core of your team and this is where the Jets are heading into dangerous territory. If you continuously overpay veterans for what they did in the past, you will fail to pay players for what they are doing now. Would you rather pay Patrik Laine $64 million during his prime to blast pucks past goalies or would you rather pay someone $40 million in his 30s to attempt to do the same?
The Jets are at a place where they are trying to both win now and maintain their roster going forward. While you can manage a cap with multiple big contracts on it, it means that the team loses a base of good depth players. It is death by a thousand paper cuts. Look at the Chicago Blackhawks: they had a dynasty and then they slowly lost it because of the salary cap. The Jets want to avoid this at all costs. What choices will they make to ensure that they do not suffer the same fate?
Next summer Laine is up for a new contract as is Jacob Trouba. Many see Trouba as out the door based on the fact he has had two tough contract negotiations including this past summer’s arbitration award. If the Jets want to remain contenders for a while, they need to keep both Laine and Trouba.
The Little conundrum is not just about Little, although they do need to figure out how to maximize his usage, but about how the Jets decide to balance players over 30 and under 30 in the future to maintain their place as a top team in the NHL. Many teams have tried to strike this balance and not many have succeeded. Can the Jets do so in the near future?