The Bruins back end won’t fall apart now that Connor Clifton has headed to Buffalo, but they’ll miss his pop, snarl, and feisty competitiveness along the blue line. “Cliffy” was the Black and Gold’s most prolific hitter (208 smacks) last season, the ex-Quinnipiac standout continuing to emerge as one of the NHL’s better, and somewhat unpredictable, thumpers.
All of which is why the Sabres, in desperate need of adding some backbone to an otherwise slick/skilled blue-line corps, spent $10 million across three years to pluck the 28-year-old Clifton from the unrestricted free agent pile. In a market that was notably distressed, in terms of available dollars and contract length, Clifton made out extremely well, tripling what he was paid in Boston.
“I’ve just tried to learn the past five years,” Clifton said in his first media Zoom session after swapping his Spoked-B for Crossed Swords. “I played with some incredible players, and I’ll forever to be grateful to have been a Boston Bruin the past five years.”
Those 208 hits ranked Clifton 10th among NHL defensemen last season. His hit rate, 8.96 per 60 minutes, placed him at No. 30 among D-men. Impressive marks, particularly for a guy slotted on the No. 3 pairing. The No. 2-3 hitters for the Bruins were Brandon Carlo (128/5.43) and Derek Forbort (106/6.64), the latter of whom often was Clifton’s left-shot sidekick.
Kevin Shattenkirk, the aged free agent acquired to fill Clifton’s roster spot, won’t be assuming Clifton’s hitting shoes. Shattenkirk, more wired for offense, rolled up only 79 hits (3.27 per 60) last season with Anaheim. For hits and overall physical presence and jam factor, the Bruins will look to veteran left winger Milan Lucic (168 hits/11.57 last season with Calgary) to fill some of the Clifton void.
Looch is a lot of things, not one of them a defenseman. When camp opens on Sept. 20, coach Jim Montgomery no doubt will spend some time sifting through young candidates such as Ian Mitchell and Alec Regula — acquired in the Taylor Hall trade with Chicago — in his search to add some back-end pop. He’ll also have to hope to wring some more of that out of Carlo and Forbort.
The Sabres, despite ranking No. 3 in goals last season — behind the Oilers and Bruins— ended up minus-4 in goal differential. Among the top 12 scoring teams in the league, only the Sabres were upside-down for goal differential. The bleeding again left them short (by a point) of a playoff berth, the franchise’s 12th consecutive postseason DNQ. Please lower your hand now if you’re still of the mind that everyone makes the playoffs. Barack Obama was winding down his first term in the Oval Office the last time the Sabres made the cut.
Clifton alone won’t stem Buffalo’s goal-for-goal bleeding, but his presence will make 31 teams far less comfortable when entering the Sabres’ end. Warning: Hard hats are mandatory now at this end of the ice. That’s not the way it has been for the Sabres for a very long time.
“Obviously, I play a two-way abrasive style,” said Clifton. “I think I am going to help on the defensive side. They were [No. 3] in goals scored, obviously. I don’t want to change how they play, but I think I can help the other side of things, and obviously, when you’re scoring more goals than you’re giving up, you’re going to be a good team.”
Headed into the weekend, only 20 players league wide, eight of them defensemen, signed post-July 1 UFA deals with annual average payouts higher than Clifton’s $3.33 million. The biggest winner at the pay window for blue liners, in terms of average payout, was fellow ex-Bruin Dmitry Orlov, who hitched on with the Hurricanes for two years at an eye-popping $7.75 million per.
The only one to exceed Orlov, and top the market for average pay and gross dollars, was goalie Ilya Sorokin, who remained on Long Island for eight years at $8.25 million per. Ex-Harvard forward Alex Killorn, a decade-plus fixture in Tampa, led the forward group with his four years, $6.25 million per in Anaheim. Kings star Anze Kopitar on Thursday agreed to stay for two more seasons at $7 million per.
According to agent Eric Quinlan, Clifton had talks with some 10 teams interested in his services. At least one other team, he said, tried to entice Clifton with more years and higher AAV than Buffalo, but Clifton felt the resurging Sabres offered the best playing opportunity. He also had a longstanding relationship with coach Don Granato, once his mentor with the US National Team Development Program.
“That was huge,” said Quinlan, noting that Clifton also enjoyed his playing time under Montgomery. “Connor and Don had the connection, and Don made clear, yeah, they wanted a right-shot D-man, and he wanted Connor to be that guy.”
Had the Bruins been in a different money situation, noted Quinlan, Clifton likely would have considered taking a slight trim to remain in Boston.
“But Sweens was great with us throughout the year, start to finish,” said Quinlan, referring to Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “He figured the money for Connor in the open market would run ahead of what he could budget, and that’s what happened.”
Boston’s loss is Buffalo’s gain, something that hasn’t happened since, oh, maybe Brad May’s “May Day!” goal in the 1993 playoffs? The Sabres and Bruins will meet in the preseason (Sept. 26 aside Lake Erie) and then for real for the first time Nov. 14. With Clifton lined up on the other side, it no doubt will be a bang-up affair.
Smith the real star of the deal?
Tuesday marked the 10th anniversary of the seismic trade in which the Bruins abruptly wheeled flashy center Tyler Seguin, then 21, to Dallas for the pocketful of mumbles that included Loui Eriksson, Matt Fraser, Joe Morrow, and Reilly Smith.
The Stars sent this way ended up playing 490 games for the Bruins. Eriksson, considered the prize in the bunch, exited as an unrestricted free agent after scoring 62 goals across three seasons for the Black and Gold. He proved a pricey, ineffective, disastrous UFA hire by the Canucks.
Seguin, exported with Rich Peverley and Ryan Button, delivered at nearly a point-per-game clip (469 games/464 points) for his first six seasons in Big D. His production sagged substantially the last four seasons (229 games/151 points), in large part due to a protracted recovery from knee and hip operations following the Stars’ loss to the Lightning in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
All four players who joined the Bruins were still on the job this past season, albeit Smith the lone one still employed in the NHL. Fraser played in Austria, Morrow in Switzerland, and Eriksson back home in Sweden (Frolunda).
Smith just three weeks ago won the Cup with Vegas — the lone player in the group to play for a champion — and was promptly traded to the Penguins in a salary dump. The Golden Knights still need to trim a little more than $2 million in payroll fat to be cap-compliant by the regular season.
Some math that might surprise some: Smith, 4-10–14 in the Knights’ title run, has appeared in 94 playoff games (most of them with Vegas) since leaving the Bruins in the July 1, 2015, deal in which GM Don Sweeney unloaded Marc Savard’s cap hit on the Panthers. An opportunistic right winger, Smith has gone on to pile up 22 goals and 74 points in those 94 games, for an impressive .788 points per game.
Seguin, in his 10 seasons with the Stars, has produced a postseason line of 14-26–40 in 72 games, an average of .556.
So while Seguin owns the higher profile and much fatter pay check ($9.85 million per season), it’s Smith ($5 million per) who owns the better postseason numbers, and now has his name etched into the Cup.
A decade gone by, and three stops later, the reliable, durable Smith has proven to be the catch of the deal.
Swayman, Frederic should get done
Jeremy Swayman and Trent Frederic, the Bruins’ high-profile restricted free agents, filed for salary arbitration prior to Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline, which means both soon should have contracts in hand to return to Boston.
All arbitration cases must be completed by Aug. 4, and the arbitrator’s decision/award must be delivered within 48 hours of the end of the hearing. Odds remain high, based on history, that Swayman and Frederic will negotiate new pacts and thus avoid the third-party meat grinder.
Longtime Bruins fans might recall that the Bruins in years past twice walked away from arbitration decisions, rendering the players unrestricted free agents.
The first walkaway, in the summer of 1999, was with Ukrainian forward Dmitri Khristich, 30, who promptly signed with the Maple Leafs. Next in 2003 was ex-Mount St. Charles blue-liner Bryan Berard, age 26. Cut free, he was scooped up by the Blackhawks.
It’s extremely doubtful that Frederic or Swayman would be awarded salaries high enough to reach the threshold for the Bruins to be able to consider a buyout. Per CBA rules, as noted in capfriendly.com, players who elect to go the arbitration route only can be cut free if the award exceeds $4.538 million.
The guess here: Frederic, 25, after totaling a career-best 17-14–31, could see around $2.25 million. We mused in this space soon after the playoffs that Swayman, who logged 47 wins over the last two years of his entry-level deal, could demand upward of $4 million, a payout in line with Jake Oettinger (Stars), Spencer Knight (Panthers), and Thatcher Demko (Canucks).
Bruins GM Don Sweeney, when meeting with the media prior to the recent draft in Nashville, sounded as if he expected Swayman’s bump would be less than recently speculated. He also said that salary arbitration probably “was not the path” either side would prefer.
“In all due respect to everyone doing their own research,” noted Sweeney, “you do need to be careful as to what your [comparable salary] is versus what the rules state a comp is.”
Assistant GM Evan Gold drives the bus when calculating the arbitration process for the Bruins. The Players Association highly influences, if not outright dictates, the numbers each player puts on the table.
Schedule will be spread out
For better or worse, NHL clubs this coming season will not be offered a lengthy mid-term hiatus, one that last season saw the Bruins luxuriate in a nine-game break between games, Feb. 1-11.
Keep in mind, there was a price to pay down the stretch for the prolonged R&R. Beginning March 2, the Bruins played 17 games across 32 days. They finished their April schedule with an even more compressed stretch of five games in eight days prior to the start of the playoffs.
By those standards, they’ll be able to switch into cruise control next April with a schedule that will see them play seven times across 17 days. An easier work pace overall, in large part because the midseason siesta wasn’t baked into the 82-game schedule.
Granted, the difference may sound minimal, but that slightly less torrid pace could be especially helpful to a lineup that could be stocked with a half-dozen veterans age 34-plus.
The highest-profile free agents yet to be gobbled up as the weekend began included Rangers forwards Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko, who came to Broadway late in the season, along with Wild defenseman Matt Dumba and Devils winger Tomas Tatar. Average pay for the four last season: just under $7.5 million. Given the shift in market forces, and dollars spent since July 1, it’s possible none will end up with more than a one-year deal in the range of $4 million-$5 million. Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman broke word just days into the UFA period that Tarasenko, disgruntled over what he perceived as lowball offers, discharged agent Paul Theofanous and hired CAA agents JP Barry and Pat Brisson . . . The Sabres also signed veteran Erik Johnson, 35, another right shot for coach Don Granato to work into a mix headlined by Rasmus Dahlin and Rookie of the Year finalist Owen Power. The early line in Buffalo is that Connor Clifton will pair with Power. “I think we’ll have an elite top six [defensemen],” said Clifton. “I’m going to slot in wherever I am and we’ll have to build some chemistry. But wherever I am [in lineup], I’m pretty excited for it.” A big batch of former Bruins, some of whom only were prospects, found new homes once the UFA bidding opened. The best deal in the bunch went to Noel Acciari, the rock-jawed winger, who departed Boston for Florida in the summer of 2019 after helping the Bruins to the Cup Final. New Penguins GM Kyle Dubas brought Acciari aboard with a three-year package worth $6 million, including a $1 million signing bonus. Toughness still matters . . . Ryan Donato, after a couple of decent years with the expansion Kraken, moved to the Blackhawks, his fifth NHL team, and will make $2 million each of the next two seasons, perhaps riding at times with fellow ex-Bruins Nick Foligno and Taylor Hall . . . Craig Smith, wheeled out of Boston at the February deadline in a trade that brought in Garnet Hathaway and Dmitry Orlov from the Capitals, landed a one-year deal in Dallas for $1 million . . . Downsized defenseman Jack Ahcan, who played nine games with the Boston varsity the last two seasons, moved to the Avalanche organization on a two-year, two-way deal that will pay him a minimum $800,000. He’ll double his dough if he sticks with the big club . . . Walpole’s Chris Wagner also took a two-way in Denver, pocketing a $375,000 guarantee . . . Karson Kuhlman, once an exciting prospect when he signed with the Bruins as a free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth, moved on to the Islanders after splitting last season between Seattle and Winnipeg. He’ll make a minimum $300,000 . . . Keep an eye on Winnipeg, where the Jets won’t allow pivot Mark Scheifele to exit next summer as a UFA. They’ll look for an asset package similar to what they recently received from the Kings when unloading Pierre-Luc Dubois ahead of the final year on his deal. The Jets received a trio of forwards they’ll plug right into their roster — Gabe Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, and Rasmus Kupari. Scheifele, with a career scoring average of 0.9 points per game, could slot in with the Bruins at No. 1 or 2 center (right shot) for the next 4-5 years. Assets akin to what the Kings yielded: Jake DeBrusk, Pavel Zacha, and perhaps Fabian Lysell. It would hurt. High-profile deals often contain pain.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.