Connor Clifton hit a milestone Sunday: He suited up for his 60th NHL game (42 regular season, 18 playoffs). It came with a bit of uncertainty.
Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Clifton would have to clear waivers before being sent to Providence, meaning any team could claim him. Clifton, who has suited up for 22 of 24 games (2-0—2), said his agent briefed him on the rules.
“Nothing’s guaranteed. Gotta keep getting better every day,” he said after playing 16:56 in Sunday night’s 3-1 win over the Canadiens. “It’s never a bad thing to be on a team with a bunch of great NHL defensemen.”
Asked about Clifton’s pending situation last week, general manager Don Sweeney acknowledged he would have to engage in “asset management” with veterans John Moore (shoulder) and Kevan Miller (knee) nearing returns, but didn’t further specify.
Moore, who played through a busted shoulder in the playoffs, was on Sunday assigned to Providence on a conditioning loan. The club is being careful with Miller, who broke his right kneecap twice last spring and last played April 4. He has skated with the team, but like Moore, it’s currently unclear what he can contribute, and when.
Clifton, who chipped in two goals and three assists in 18 playoff games, comes the cheapest of the three. His three-year, $3 million extension kicks in next summer. Moore, who will cost $2.75 million against the cap when he returns, is also signed through 2023. Miller ($2.5 million AAV) is an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The Bruins’ surplus includes veteran Steven Kampfer, who would need to clear waivers if assigned to Providence. The year remaining on his contract ($800,000 AAV) might give some teams pause on claiming him.
Clifton, the former Quinnipiac captain, came to the organization on an AHL deal in the summer of 2017. Both he and the Bruins believe he’s good enough to stay in the NHL.
“Potentially in any role the team needs me in,” Clifton said. “Right now it’s been a third-pair, 12 to 15 minutes, solid defensively. I haven’t done too much offensively, but I’m sure that’ll come.”
Coach Bruce Cassidy would like to see “a little more assertiveness” in his game without him being reckless. He did note that a measure of risk-taking seems to make Clifton a better player.
“He’s played well for us,” Cassidy said. “There’s a reason he’s in the lineup every night. We want to keep working with him. I’d say he’s been solid, room for improvement, probably like a lot of guys.
“Maybe expectation was higher after performing in the playoffs at a high level. Then we realized he’s still new to the NHL.”
Clifton, who debuted last November and became a regular in February, said he’s always found it tough to get his legs going early in the year.
“Starting on an NHL roster was different to me,” he said. “I even started slow [in Providence], before I started to get my groove on. At the NHL level, it’s not easy to find it. It takes some time. I think we have. We’re on a roll here, so we’ve got to keep it going.”
In June 2017, the Bruins left another right-shot, 24-year-old defenseman exposed in the expansion draft. Colin Miller, now with Buffalo, was free for fledgling Vegas to claim. The Bruins protected Kevan Miller, preferring his steady brand of toughness. (Seattle, by the way, isn’t on the clock until June 2021).
In his first year with the Golden Knights, Colin Miller broke out for 41 points in 82 games and signed a four-year, $15.5 million extension. Looking to clear cap space, Vegas shipped him to Buffalo last June for second- and fifth-round picks.
Marchand back in lineup
Brad Marchand, who battled flu-like symptoms in Friday’s win over the Rangers, returned to the lineup against the Canadiens.
“Feeling better,” Cassidy said of Marchand, whose 18 goals rank him fourth in the NHL. “Still not 100 percent.”
The Bruins, again sans Patrice Bergeron (core/groin injury), shifted Charlie Coyle back to second-line center and demoted Jack Studnicka to Providence. They want the latter, a first-year pro, to keep developing as a center. Brendan Gaunce remained as the extra forward.
Bergeron sat for the fourth game in a row and sixth in the Bruins’ last eight games.
Cassidy also called on David Backes for the first time since his Nov. 2 crash with Ottawa’s Scott Sabourin. Backes, who has missed the last 13 games, opened the night on the third line with left wing Anders Bjork and center Sean Kuraly and got his first goal of the season in the third period, a power-play tally that put the Bruins up, 2-1.
The coach’s expectation for the 35-year-old, who now has a 1-1—2 line in nine contests, was to re-establish his pace and touch.
Pat on the back
Cassidy on Bjork, who has 6 points in 18 games, has seen penalty kill time and won his share of puck battles: “I think he’s checked off a lot of boxes. Nice development so far.” . . . David Pastrnak got his 25th goal of the season Sunday night, extending his edge to five over Alex Ovechkin, who had a hat trick Saturday to become the second player to hit the 20-goal mark . . . Speaking of snipers: Marchand’s shooting percentage (27.3 percent) is the best of any top-line player in the league. Among regulars, only the Islanders’ Josh Bailey (28 percent; seven goals on 25 shots) is shooting with greater efficiency than Marchand (18 goals on 66 shots).
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter @mattyports.