The defenseman formerly known as Connor Clifton is now known as Kenny, his name change appointed and made official by Bruins coach Jim Montgomery.
Coaches, let’s remember, can call you whatever they want.
“Kenny Rogers, that’s my new nickname for him, all right?” said a smiling Montgomery following Wednesday’s workout in Brighton, which still had Clifton with elite blue liner Hampus Lindholm in the No. 1 pairing and the Bruins still parked No. 1 in the NHL standings.
Rogers was best known for his song, “The Gambler.” Rarely do NHL coaches crack a smile when pairing the concepts of defense and gambling, but Montgomery has seen enough of Clifton’s risky business thus far to trust that the 27-year-old ex-Quinnipiac standout will play his cards right more often than not.
Montgomery, his calculated risks as a coach paying rewards in the standings, sees Kenny as a guy who’s running hot at the table, and he seems to have zero intention of altering his game, his approach, or his minutes (21:18 average).
“He knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em,” said Montgomery, stealing a line from Rogers’s trademark song. “Not all the time … and he doesn’t want to fold ’em very often.”
Of all the surprises this season, Clifton, previously known as a struggling third-pairing backliner with an impulse for risky freelancing, is perhaps the greatest of them all. Under Montgomery’s tutelage, he has emerged, and keeps evolving, as an impressive and vital contributor on both sides of the puck. He has an offensive mind-set and brings legit thump to his hitting game.
“I mean, he knocked [Milan] Lucic off his skates,” mused Montgomery. “Nuf said, right?”
To drill down on the offense for a moment, both Clifton and the slicker Lindholm are tracking for career years. Headed into Thursday night’s matchup vs. the Flyers at the Garden, Lindholm and Clifton are on a pace to accumulate 128 points.
The Bruins have not had two blue liners finish with such output in nearly 30 years, dating back to Ray Bourque and Glen Wesley rolling up 149 points in 1993-94. That was when we took goals and assists, even from defensemen, as commonplace as cheap whiskey and cigars at the card table.
Lindholm and Clifton right now are Exhibits 1 and 1A when it comes to understanding the step forward that team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney were hoping to see by way of hiring Montgomery for new messaging behind the bench. In contrast to Bruce Cassidy, Montgomery has provided more players with more leeway. The trust is paying off.
Cassidy liked Clifton, too, and deserves credit for coaching structure into his game and helping him start a big league career. Cassidy, though, was not as tolerant of risk and inherent boo-boos. A bad game, or even a bad play, could knock Clifton from the next game’s lineup.
Now, said Clifton, “We can go behind the goal line and try to make a play, and it’s not the end of the world.”
It can be even more extreme than those flights of fancy. Case in point: a time earlier this season when Lindholm fired one off from the point and the freewheeling Kenny was in the slot, attempting the tip.
“Yeah, a funny thing,” recalled Clifton, giggling a little. “That doesn’t normally happen with two D partners.”
Flashback to Clifton’s first rookie camp, during tournament play in Buffalo: Jay Leach, then the AHL Providence coach, mused postgame about “Cliffy Hockey,” which had Cliffy as the lead puckhandler in a three-on-one breakout.
“Boy, Cliffy, not sure about that,” said Leach, both bemused and befuddled. “But OK. We’ll have to talk about that a little bit.”
In the summer of ‘21, Jeremy Lauzon and Clifton were left exposed for the Seattle expansion draft. The Kraken chose Lauzon, in part because he was a couple of years younger and had a slightly higher draft pedigree. Across the league, Lauzon was viewed to have greater upside.
Some 18 months later, Lauzon is clinging to third-pairing minutes in Nashville and the defenseman formerly known as Connor Clifton is making it happen big-time with Lindholm, who is on pace for 87 points — a quantum jump over the career-high 34 he posted in Anaheim.
Let it be duly noted that all these numbers are a product of but 16 games, barely 20 percent of the schedule. There’s no guarantee that past performance will lead to future success over the next 66.
But card players like Kenny, when they’re feeling it, deal in hands of the present and expect their luck to run. If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.
“I’ve always liked him as a player,” noted Montgomery. “He’s a hockey player. Because he goes out and tries to make things happen.
“I think Michael Jordan said some people can make things happen, some people wonder what happens, and you want players that can make things happen. With him, I think us trying to play an aggressive style of hockey, defensively and offensively, leans toward his personality.”
Montgomery particularly appreciates what he calls Kenny’s “short memory.”
“Funny, yesterday is a perfect example,” said the coach. “I said to him, ‘Did you see your scoring chances?’ Now, his scoring chances for are high, and his scoring chances against are high — this [speaks to] him being Kenny Rogers. And he said, ‘Yeah, but did you see how many chances I had, though?’ Like I say, short memory.
“He’s not a glass half-full. It’s full. To the rim.”
Among the reasons the Lindholm-Clifton pairing has worked so well, said Montgomery, is Kenny’s hockey sense.
“The most underrated part of his hockey game,” offered Montgomery. “He sees the ice really well. Good hockey players know what they’re going to do with the puck before they get it. He does. So that allows Lindholm to play aggressively offensively and defensively. He knows his partner is reading the game similar to him.”
It’s a long season, with many more hands to play. Wise players know, never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
“Last couple of years, obviously, you don’t do it if you can’t get away with it, right?” said Kenny, thinking back to his days here playing as Connor. “So obviously, this is a different style. It’s been good for me, the team. It’s been awesome.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.