Many Leafs fans have begged and pleaded for a larger physical presence to be injected into the Leafs lineup throughout the entirety of Kyle Dubas’ tenure as Leafs GM. He’s built his team pretty much as advertised – skilled, and a tad undersized. In early February, Dubas pulled the trigger on a trade that brought in backup goalie Jack Campbell, and 6’2, 211lbs, Ontario-born Kyle Clifford, a gritty forward who’s been with the Los Angeles Kings for the past 9 seasons. Let’s take a look at what type of value Kyle Clifford has brought to his teams throughout his career, and how he may impact the play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
From a number standpoint, Clifford has struggled a little in his 16 games with the Leafs, but overall has shown to be a solid defensive winger throughout his career.
Clifford has never been much of an offensive player, which is made imminent just by looking at his point totals. He’s averaged about 16 points per 82 games since entering the league, which has slightly risen to 20 points per 82 over the last three seasons.
Clifford is also revered for his physical presence, and rightfully so. He ranked 59th among all regular NHL forwards in Hits per 60 minutes this season, and while that doesn’t sound incredibly high, he’s one spot behind Oilers forward Zach Kassian, and ahead of other players known as pests such as Scott Laughton, Nick Ritchie, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Sanford, Noel Acciari, and more.
Another thing to consider: It’s hard to hit when you have the puck a lot. Clifford would probably rank higher, but he’s actually been a very good driver of puck possession throughout his career. Here’s his isolated impact on driving play with Los Angeles this season, courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy at HockeyViz.com. The Kings spent a lot of time in the offensive zone with Clifford on the ice, and not much time in the defensive zone.
As previously mentioned, though, he hasn’t been quite as good in Toronto as he was this year for L.A. We’re only 16 games into his Leafs tenure, so the sample size is small, but his impacts are much worse overall in both the offensive zone and the defensive zone:
Clifford has been significantly worse at driving play in a Toronto uniform than he was as a King, and that obviously shows up in his raw Corsi For% and Expected Goals% too. Furthermore, while nobody is expecting Kyle Clifford to be a major producer of offence, he’s been scoring less too as we can see here:
(Stats from Natural Stat Trick)
It’s important to know who Clifford was playing with the most, for added context. His three most common linemates, in order, were Jason Spezza, Kasperi Kapanen, and Frederik Gauthier. While Frederik Gauthier isn’t much of a play-driver or a point-scorer, the other two are very capable at doing those things, which leaves some questions to be answered. Why was Clifford worse overall with Toronto than he was with LA? Why was he not driving play in Toronto? Why was he scoring less in Toronto? Part of this is probably sample size bias – 16 games is a small sample – but the change has been pretty drastic in a number of stats, so it’s worth some further exploration.
Whenever there’s a discrepancy between the numbers and the public opinion of a player, or when there’s been a sudden change in a player’s statistical profile, I like to consult the game tape and see what’s going on. Let’s take a look at Clifford’s Leafs tenure through a scouting lense.
Everyone knows that Clifford is a big hitter, and that he’ll drop the gloves when necessary, but there’s a lot more to his game than just that (even in Toronto, where his numbers were worse).
Clifford is an intelligent defensive winger who demonstrates sound defensive positioning. He gets his stick into open passing lanes, and his combination of his long reach and powerful skating stride allow him to cover a lot of ground. His physical strength allows him to win a lot of battles along the boards, and he always makes sure to finish his checks. He provides a lot of value in the defensive zone. In transition, Clifford gets himself open and makes himself a passing option for his wingers, although he shouldn’t be his teammates primary target seeing as he doesn’t generate many controlled exits or entries. Clifford often elects to dump the puck in because he lacks the puck skills and deception required to dangle NHL defencemen with consistency. With his tools, he is best suited dumping the puck in and trying to win it back with his speed and size. Offensively, Clifford lacks high-end vision, and as I’ve mentioned he doesn’t have great skill with the puck. He fails to recognize open teammates in the middle of the ice often, and he’ll typically either shovel the puck to the net, start a cycle, or send the puck high to an open defenceman. There’s not a lot of creativity involved in Clifford’s game, but if you play him with players who can play a cycle-oriented offensive game, they can keep the run of play in your favour for the majority of their shifts, and maybe bang in the odd rebound. One part of Clifford’s offensive game I do quite like is his sense of offensive zone timing, and his off-puck reads. When he doesn’t have the puck, Clifford supports his teammates well, often making smart reads that allow him to find open ice at opportune times.
My biggest takeaway with why Clifford’s numbers looked so much worse in Toronto was because nobody that they played him with really complimented his style of play all that well other than Jason Spezza. They need a third forward to emerge that can effectively play with that duo to make a really solid fourth line. Clifford also went from starting 61% of his shifts in the offensive zone in LA, to starting just 42% of them in the offensive zone in Toronto, which makes things tougher.
I actually quite like the combination of Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford on the fourth line, and I think that could be a good pairing. Spezza is a good carrier, and Clifford should probably be playing with a center who can carry the puck. Spezza is a good playmaker, and Clifford is good at getting open. Both are relatively smart hockey players. Spezza and Clifford actually did have pretty good results when playing together, too, just not when they were with Frederik Gauthier:
I put myself through watching a couple games of only Clifford-Gauthier-Spezza shifts, and found that the line was pretty good at preventing quality against, but unsurprisingly struggled in transition when anybody not named Jason Spezza had the puck, and Gauthier was late to a lot of loose pucks on the cycle in the offensive zone. The Leafs should avoid using this combination when they can.
Overall, Clifford is an intelligent, physical winger who’s not going to add much value in transition or score you a ton of points, but he can win you a lot of puck battles, play smart defensive hockey, and add a physical element to your lineup.
We know for sure that Clifford is going to bring a lot of the physicality for the Leafs this postseason. That’s the way he’s always played, and that’s probably a large part of why they brought him in – he’s something they don’t really have. When you consider that playoff time is also the most physical time of the hockey calendar, you know we’ll probably get a few huge Clifford hits in an effort to rally the rest of the team.
If they can find a nice fit in the way they construct their fourth line, Clifford could have himself a pretty nice series all things considered – he’s most likely not going to score a ton, but he’s capable grinding down play in the offensive zone on the cycle, keeping the play out of your end. That’s all you really need from your fourth line.
Worst case scenario, the Leafs go back to Clifford-Gauthier-Spezza and the fourth line is a complete non-factor offensively and in transition. Sheldon Keefe is a smart guy, though, so I doubt he’ll use this line combination for long (if at all) assuming it performs how it did in the regular season.
Nobody should expect Clifford to be the X-Factor in this series, but Clifford was brought in to play smart, defensive hockey and to add a physical element to the bottom-six. The expectation should be on him to do just that this playoffs – go out there and play how he’s always played. Clifford does have the experience of going deep into the playoffs on his resume, so nobody should expect him to be intimidated by the pressure that comes with going on a playoff run. He’s done it before.