With just seven wins in their first 18 games, the early part of the 2013-14 season has not gone entirely as planned for the Ottawa Senators.
Coming off their second straight postseason appearance, one that saw them upset the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round, expectations were high in Ottawa, thanks to a young, up-tempo team, some great goaltending, and the blockbuster addition of 30-goal scorer Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks.
Entering their game in Boston on Friday night, the Senators sit in tenth place in the Eastern Conference. They have been kept afloat by the performance of one line that seems to be sneaking under the radar across the NHL for its effectiveness.
Back on October 13, in a game against the Ducks, head coach Paul MacLean put Ryan, Kyle Turris, and Clarke MacArthur on the same line, and they seemed to form an instant chemistry. It was Ottawa's best line that night, and it has continued to be in the 13 games that have followed. Other than the play of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner in net, it has probably been the only thing keeping the Senators in the playoff race so far this season.
Through the first month-and-a-half, the Senators have played some of the wildest games in the league. They have a per-game average of 5.8 total goals (fourth highest in NHL), 67.7 shots on goal (highest in NHL), and 90 Corsi events (fifth highest in NHL).
If nothing else, they are never boring. The problem for the Senators is a lot of those shots (and a lot of those Corsi events) are coming from the opposition. The exception to that is when the Ryan-Turris-MacArthur line is on the ice. With that trio of players together in five-on-five situations, the Senators are getting more than 56 percent of the shot attempts, more than 56 percent of the shots on goal, and outscoring their opponents 9-4. Without them on the ice, the Senators' shot numbers drop down to below 48 percent, and they have been outscored 32-31. It reads like a tale of two different teams.
Along with their five-on-five success, the line has also been on the ice for four power play goals.
No matter the situation, this line has not only been the driving force behind whatever positives are happening for the Senators this season, it has been one of the best lines in the NHL. General manager Bryan Murray pieced it together through a series of shrewd moves over the past couple of years. Even before they joined forces in Ottawa, all three players have had some success in their previous stops.
Ryan is perhaps the most well known, due to his four consecutive 30-goal seasons between 2008 and 2012. Shortly after the public relations nightmare that was long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson leaving Ottawa to sign with the Detroit Red Wings, the Senators completed a mega-deal with the Ducks to acquire the Cherry Hill, New Jersey native, a player who is still in the prime of his career, as well as signed long term, for a package that included Jakob Silfverberg.
The other two moves might have been a little easier to miss.
Turris entered the NHL with the Phoenix Coyotes after he was selected with the third overall pick in 2007, and his career had a bit of a rocky start, as he notched just 19 goals and 18 assists in 186 games. The production itself was decent enough for a player in his early twenties, and he consistently posted good possession numbers to go with his obvious talent. There was obviously something there, but it just was not fully coming out in Phoenix. It led to a rather nasty and public contract dispute, and the Coyotes eventually dealt him to Ottawa for David Rundblad and a second round draft pick.
Two years later, that trade is looking like a steal for the Senators.
Turris is starting to blossom in Ottawa, and he is signed for another four years after this one at a rather cap-friendly rate of $3.5 million per season. It looked like it might have been a slight overpay at the time, but given the way Turris has fit in Ottawa, it could turn out to be a bargain.
And then we get to MacArthur.
The Maple Leafs seemed to have little use for him in his last year, even though he scored 20 goals in each of the previous two seasons, and was consistently one of the best possession players on one of the worst possession teams in the league. He was even a healthy scratch twice in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal loss, despite making a constant impact in the five games he dressed.
Over the past three or four years, MacArthur has been one of those guys whose traditional numbers never seem to jump off the page, but he is always making an impact through his ability to keep the play moving in the right direction. Despite usually playing against second line talent, and starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone, MacArthur's team has always managed to come out ahead in the shots (and goals) department when he is on the ice. That has continued in a big way with Ottawa this season.
What was truly impressive is how the Senators were able to wait out the initial free agency signing rush (during which some regrettable contracts were thrown around), getting a solid, two-way player for $6.5 million over two years.
There are quite a few players like MacArthur (and Turris) around the NHL that excel in coming through the neutral zone and getting play into the offensive zone. Justin Williams, Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal, Alex Steen, Viktor Stalberg, and Tyler Kennedy are a few other examples. It is a valuable skill. But because they may not have the type of shot, or quick release, or finishing ability that results in them scoring 30 or 35 goals, it tends to sometimes get overlooked. That does not mean their contributions are any less important.
It was a great job by the Senators front office to buy low on a couple of guys that have consistently done a great job in that area, and piecing them together has formed a line that has very quietly become one of the most efficient in the NHL.
Now they just need to get the rest of the team figured out.