by Jared Shafran | AHL On The Beat
One of the keys to a run of hot play during the month of November for the Ontario Reign, which saw the team go 6-3-1-1 and earn points in eight straight games from Nov. 8-25, is the team’s fourth line, which has been a big help at both ends of the ice.
Helenius, a 2021 second-round NHL Draft selection by the Los Angeles Kings who is in his second professional season with the Reign, is a two-way skater who uses his big 6-foot-6 size to his advantage all over the ice. While he doesn’t pile up points or contribute on the power play, he’s trusted in his own zone and has earned a big role on the team’s penalty kill.
While appearing in each of Ontario’s 18 games so far this season, Helenius has earned an even or better plus-minus rating in all but two contests. His plus-5 mark ranks fourth on a team that has outscored opponents by a 14-goal margin. A year ago, as a rookie on a team that allowed five more goals than they scored, Helenius saw time in 61 games and led the club with a plus-7 rating.
Doty, now in his fifth campaign with the Reign and 10th professional season overall, knows his role well as a physical presence in the bottom six. But this season he’s made an impact with is offensive game, contributing more frequently to Ontario’s attack. Doty netted game-winning tallies in three of the team’s first six wins and has already equaled his AHL career-high through 16 games with four goals.
He’s also a player with a positive rating at plus-4 and has been singled out by head coach Marco Sturm as an important piece of the roster.
“He’s a big part of our team,” Sturm recently said of Doty after a comeback win where his line helped shift the game’s momentum. “You could see it out there. Things were not going well, and he stepped up just to get the guys going. He doesn’t do it for himself, it’s always for the team and that’s why he’s a big part of our group.”
Known as someone who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, Doty is always there to stand up for his teammates. But he has worked hard to round out the rest of his game over the past few years, improving his skating, puck-handling and shot. He was off to a good start last year as well, but the Billings, Mont., native’s momentum was derailed when an injury in mid-November ended his season. Now he’s more than picked up where he left off and has even earned praise from Kings’ personnel. Los Angeles included him on the roster for the team’s preseason Global Series trip to Australia where he suited up for a game, as well as in one other preseason matchup.
“I think it’s just us making good decisions,” Doty said of his line’s success this season. “We haven’t spent a lot of time in our D-zone so obviously you’re going to be on the plus side of things when that’s the case.”
The third member of the unit hasn’t been as set in stone, but more of a rotating group of forwards. Early on Taylor Ward spent time alongside Helenius and Doty, then it was rookies Francesco Pinelli and Ryan Francis. But ever since Andre Lee returned from a preseason injury two weeks ago on Nov. 17, he’s occupied the left wing spot.
“Everybody who has been a part of that line has been good and we know what our job is,” Doty said. “We’re not trying to overcomplicate things and I think that’s a huge part of it is keeping it simple. Then I think Sammy and I dragging whoever it is we’re playing with into the physical game, I think that’s maybe not a calling card for those guys that have mixed in, but they’ve done a good job of either finishing checks or being second on pucks after Sammy and I make the checks to really establish some O-zone time.”
Lee, who is also one of the biggest players on the ice at 6-foot-5, fits right in with that style. He does have some more natural skill to his game but has learned the physical style that works well in the fourth line role and has become more comfortable playing that way. Lee stormed out of the gate in his return, scoring twice, and added a primary assist on a game-winning goal in Ontario’s win over San Jose on Saturday. He’s also someone who has impressed Sturm this season.
“He makes our team better,” Sturm said of Lee after a win in Coachella Valley last week. “I think he makes his line better. We’re slowly going to push him forward to maybe get even more ice time and special teams roles, but he’s a guy I can trust. He does a lot of little things right and he’s made a big difference since he’s back.”
Sturm’s comfort with the line in all situations has led him to use them late in the game while Ontario has been protecting a lead. It has taken the burden off others who generally garner lots of ice time and showcased how important the job is that they’re doing each night.
That’s not a role Helenius saw much of last season. But it’s been part of his development and something he’s grown into. That change and maturation he’s shown is something Doty has picked up on as well.
“I think with Sammy it’s just part of him growing as a person and his confidence is growing along with that,” Doty said. “With it being his second full season over here and having a little better grasp on speaking the language and being around the rink so often, I think you can just see him growing both on and off the ice and it’s very fun to watch. I think he’s only going to get better. The sky is the limit for Sammy and I’m excited to watch that happen.”
The success of the line has also led to Doty being more of a leader in the locker room. While he doesn’t wear a “C” or an “A” each night, the veteran is one of a larger group of players who are counted on for leadership each day.
This season the Reign have more of a veteran representation in the locker room after adding players who have been around the league a while like Kevin Connauton, Joe Hicketts, Charles Hudon and Steven Santini. That’s made things a little different for someone like Doty, the longest-tenured member of the roster who has been around a while.
“It’s been nice,” Doty said. “I think in the past it’s been just the handful of older guys that are looked at for the leadership and now I’d say our leadership group is eight to 10 guys big. The ownness isn’t on the two, three or four of us anymore it’s leadership by committee and I think when you have that many older guys that have been around the league and been here a long time that they just do things the right way and that filters through the group. We’re starting to see that pay off with some of the streaks we’re going on and playing more consistently more often. It’s definitely a lot of fun; it’s a good group to be a part of.”
As the calendar flips to December this week, the Reign occupy second place in the AHL’s Pacific Division with 24 points. They’re hoping the depth of their forward group and the success of the fourth line continue to help them win games as they get further along in the season.