Bryan Little (Getty Images)
The Winnipeg Jets franchise has been eager to forget about its Atlanta past, but the team has improved this season thanks to performances from a bunch of ex-Thrashers. One of those ex-Thrashers scored the first hat trick in Jets 2.0 history on Friday.
The Winnipeg Jets shelled the Colorado Avalanche 6-2 at the MTS Centre Friday night, led by a franchise record-setting performance from a former Atlanta Thrasher.
Bryan Little scored three goals and added an assist in the game to notch the Jets’ first hat trick since the team returned to Winnipeg in 2011.
Little’s first tally took video review to confirm, as Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov had his hand inside the net when he caught a Little one-timer from the side of the goal.
Little snapped in his second goal on a feed from Blake Wheeler just 45 seconds into the third period to make it 4-1 Jets. He followed it up with another goal 32 seconds later, roofing a rebound on a scramble play at the net to send the MTS Centre into a hat-throwing frenzy.
The Avs yanked Varlamov after giving up five goals on 30 shots, and the Jets won the game 6-2.
Little scoring the Jets’ first hat trick on home ice was good, but the fact that he was once an Atlanta Thrasher made the moment even more significant.
Some have unfairly blamed the Jets’ former Thrasher players for the franchise’s inability to make the playoffs since they moved in 2011. There’s no point in repeating those criticisms – they’re the typical ones you hear in most Canadian cities where the team is bad – but players haven’t been hearing them as often this year.
The problem with all the ex-Thrashers wasn’t that they played in Atlanta. It was that they were young when they arrived in Winnipeg, and the team didn’t have a generation of players in their prime to carry it on a nightly basis. There weren't enough players in their mid- to late twenties to shoulder the leadership load, and the younger players simply weren't ready.
Just look at the Edmonton Oilers and you'll see how poorly a team does without a core of 25- to 30-year-old players to lead it.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s patience with his roster has begun to pay off, as many players who were in their early twenties in 2011 have at last matured into those much-needed players in their prime.
Little now leads the team with 11 goals on the season. He’s also locked in a three-way tie for first on the team with 19 points – a lead he shares with linemates Andrew Ladd (one goal, two assists on Friday) and Blake Wheeler (three assists).
All three players were Atlanta Thrashers before the move, as was Dustin Byfuglien, who leads all Jets defenders in scoring.
Bryan Little is 27 and entering his prime. Ditto for 28-year-olds Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd. And while it feels like he’s been around forever, Dustin Byfuglien is only 29.
These Atlanta holdovers have become the backbone of the Jets franchise, and they’re buying time for the next crop of youngsters to develop.
Former Thrashers prospects Zach Bogosian, 24, and Evander Kane, 23, are a few years behind their top-line teammates, but they should soon hit their stride. Meanwhile, the Jets’ homegrown talents are free to grow at their own pace.
What’s happening up front on the Jets is also happening in net. Ondrej Pavelec looks like he’s finally on track again at age 27, but 24-year-old goalie Michael Hutchinson is already challenging him for playing time.
The next generation is coming. It just takes time.
And in the meantime, the former Thrashers players are playing better in Winnipeg than they ever did in Atlanta.
Hats off to them.