MONTREAL - Bryan Little is not a big guy but that doesn't stop him from fending off opposing defenders to score goals.
The five-foot-11 185-pound Atlanta Thrashers forward has already topped the 30-goal mark in only his second NHL season. He's also making his mark on the team's top line with centre Todd White and star winger Ilya Kovalchuk.
"He's not big, but he plays in front of the net on the power play and finds those seams," general manager Don Waddell said Tuesday as the Thrashers prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. "He's one of the smarter guys on our team.
"He puts himself in a good position to get the puck and he has the finish."
The Thrashers have made the playoffs only once in their 10-year existence and are all but certain not to make it this season. But Little is part of a youth movement that has Atlanta optimistic about the future.
There is also the oft-injured goalie Kari Lehtonen, who has been sharp since his return from missing 19 games with a back injury, and defenceman Zach Bogosian, the third overall pick in the draft last June who has already become an NHL regular.
There will likely be another high pick this season.
Little was selected 12th overall in 2006 from the Barrie Colts of the OHL, where he had two 100-point seasons. In the NHL, he collects far more goals than assists, but says that's the role he received from coach John Anderson.
"I'm not going to get many assists when I'm in front of the net on the power play, and that's my position," the 21-year-old said. "I get fed the puck in front.
"It has just happened that way. In another year, I may have more assists than goals. Staying in front is tough sometimes. You're getting cross-checked and I'm usually not as the big as the defencemen, but it works to my advantage too. I have a low centre of gravity and I get planted there."
Little had six goals and 10 assists in 48 games as a rookie last season and Waddell felt it was best to send him to Chicago for the AHL playoffs. He ended up scoring eight times as the Wolves won the championship.
"It helped," Little said "Even though it wasn't the NHL playoffs, the AHL is a good league.
"It was good to see what it's like to go a full four rounds and see how tough it was."
Now he's taken two steps - becoming an NHL regular and a top-line player.
And Little's rapid development is one reason why the Thrashers have confidence they can make some noise next season.
The feeling on the team is that it took at least half the season to come together due to an influx of new players, injuries to Lehtonen and defenceman Mathieu Schneider, who was traded to Montreal before the March 4 deadline, and implementing first-year coach Anderson's more aggressive system of play.
"I didn't think we'd be competing for a Stanley Cup but I absolutely believed we'd be competing for a playoff spot at this point," said Waddell. "That's a disappointing thing, but it took longer to come together than we all hoped."
As well as bringing along young players, the Thrashers made another key move by naming Kovalchuk as their captain in mid-season. Now he's on a tear, with 31 points in his last 17 games
"As a team we started playing better and when everyone plays well, it's easier to get points," Kovalchuk said.
Kovalchuk has one more season left on a contract that pays him US$6.4 million in the current campaign, and Waddell said signing the "face of the franchise" to a long-term deal is his top priority for this summer.
"We can start negotiating with him July 1," said Waddell. "I call that our free agent signing right there."
Kovalchuk likes the idea of staying in Atlanta, but hopes the signings don't stop there.
"For sure, but we need to do something in summertime with free agents," Kovalchuk said. "You want to be a competitive team to go for the Stanley Cup and the playoffs because it's a great city and our fans deserve way more than we give them right now."
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