Wherever Connor Clifton is going this season, he’ll undoubtedly get there with some speed and pop. Still a rookie, he is hoping to land a spot on the Boston varsity’s blue line. He has bona fide NHL speed and a healthy dash of old-time, shall we say, spunk along the boards.
“I mean, at this level, everyone is so good, you know?” said Clifton, 24, noting his zeal for the hitting game. “I’d much rather hit someone than try to poke check ’em and have them put it through my feet, go around me, and stick it in the back of my net. I’d much rather separate man from puck.”
Nothing catches the eye like a big hit, but beyond the clatter along the boards, Clifton’s most noticeable, valued asset is his skating.
“That’s what it is with Cliffy, no question,” said Jay Leach, who coached the ex-Quinnipiac standout his first two seasons at AHL Providence, “his skating is just elite.”
Now how that blend of rattle and hum fits in with this season’s Boston roster remains one of training camp’s unknowns. Clifton, expected to suit up again in Saturday night’s exhibition tune-up in Chicago, logged 19 regular-season games upon being called up last season in a relief role, then began to make a regular impact in the playoffs, collecting 5 points over 18 games, typically riding with Matt Grzelcyk on the third pairing.
If he could start the clock running where it stopped in June, which typically isn’t the case in the ever-changing NHL, he’d start 2019-20 again on Grzelcyk’s right and stay there until someone tried to knock him over the boards and into Palookaville.
“I thought we were a really good third pair, playing 16 to 18 minutes a night,” he said. “Obviously, with [Charlie] McAvoy and [Brandon] Carlo back — they are tremendous players, and I can learn a lot from each of them — but wherever I fit in, I’ll gladly take that role.”
McAvoy and Carlo weren’t around when camp opened, but both are back now, each with healthy new contracts, and inked into the No. 1 and 2 righty spots on the top two pairings. McAvoy again will ride on the No. 1 unit with captain Zdeno Chara and Carlo will pair with Torey Krug on the No. 2 unit.
Grzelcyk, entering his third season, owns the left side on the No. 3 pairing, particularly with the injured (shoulder) John Moore out for at least a couple of months. Kevan Miller (two knee fractures), yet to skate, also won’t start the new season.
So in the short term, the No. 3 righty spot probably falls to Clifton or possibly Steve Kampfer — unless coach Bruce Cassidy were to try to work a left stick into the mix. Candidates then would be Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jakub Zboril.
Cassidy liked what he saw of Clifton last season. A bit of a wild card at times, the rare player that Cassidy had to caution from being too eager to jump into the offense, Clifton increasingly became more consistent and dependable.
Coaches forever fight the battle of wanting players to be aggressive and push the envelope, while at the same time craving to look down the bench and identify the known commodities, the players least likely to hiccup in the big moment.
“He’s getting better at that,” Cassidy said following Friday’s workout at Warrior/Brighton.
Case in point where Clifton still needs work, noted Cassidy, came in Thursday’s win in Philadelphia when Clifton was not quick enough to identify that his partner, Lauzon, had pinched down along the opposite wall. A Boston forward also was late to close off the Flyers’ transition out of the zone on a line change.
Had Clifton been quicker to read and react, it wouldn’t have taken a great stop by Boston goalie Jaro Halak to prevent the Broad Streeters from connecting on their 2-on-1 rush.
“Those situations, you have to be sure,” stressed Cassidy. “If you’re going to go [on the attack], then you’ve got to get out when it’s time to get out. That’s the message to Cliffy — he sometimes wants to hang around and that can get dangerous.”
The same night, of course, Clifton’s quick read and wheels helped him notch his first goal of the preseason.
As he popped on the ice upon serving out a two-minute penalty, he hauled in a feed from Anders Bjork at mid-ice and blew by two Flyer defenders for a breakaway. He rushed to the top of the crease, switched from forehand to backhand, and popped in his doorstep shot.
“Been a while since I’ve had a breakaway,” Clifton, with a wide smile, said the next afternoon, a visitor noting his scorer’s touch in Philly. “Solid, yeah.”
Following the game in Chicago, the Bruins will fly home and begin trimming back the roster as early as Sunday, returning some players to junior teams, and assigning others to the Providence camp that opens Monday.
For now, Clifton should not be going anywhere. If he doesn’t tie down the third pairing spot with Grzelcyk, his work in the playoffs probably has earned him the No. 7 slot on the blue line brigade, living the NHL life, filling in as needed.
“He was always competitive, but I think he feels more confident, engaging physically,” said Cassidy. “I think he’s always been a guy who’ll take the puck and go. Now he’s picking his spots better . . . if he can grow his offensive game, work on his shot to score goals, because he does get in good positions . . . I think that will benefit him. At the end of the day, I think he keeps growing with what he does best, which is be assertive, and we just try to minimize his risk.”
Training camp wraps up next weekend. Only a week remains for Cassidy & Co. to sort out the prospects and identify the pieces for the new season. Count on Clifton to keep banging on the door, and along the boards.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.