TORONTO – Just because the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of a goaltending crisis and not a sandpaper crisis does not mean that Kyle Clifford is an afterthought to Kyle Dubas’s stretch-run double splash.
Naturally, with Michael Hutchinson dropping sticks and victories, the acquisition of a better backup goalie (with term) in Jack Campbell would and should garner top billing.
But the Clifford portion of the Maple Leafs’ return for fourth-line winger Trevor Moore and a pair of third-round draft picks (one conditional) is by no means a throw-in or an afterthought.
Rather, it’s a calculated targeting of an area of need, and Dubas inferred he would’ve pulled the trigger on this deal earlier had L.A. been ready to sign off on trading Clifford.
“He’ll make a big impact here right away, knowing his personality,” Dubas said Thursday. “If you have those elements to your game that you’re physical and competitive and you have a presence to you, you have to be able to play.
“He can play — and those guys aren’t in abundance anymore. I think that’s why when they’re available, the cost is pretty high.”
As feisty and driven as Moore is, Toronto has arguably the richest well of young, bottom-six wingers in the NHL. Just look at the rapid ascension of Pierre Engvall or the potential in a future top-six wing on injured reserve in Ilya Mikheyev.
What Toronto doesn’t have enough of is players of the Clifford mold: a two-time Stanley Cup champion with 55 games of playoff experience, a nasty sort who can still pitch in offensively, and a blue-collar, stick-up-for-the-boys leader who comes stamped with the highest compliment one can earn in hockey circles — character guy.
“I mean, they didn’t bring me in to outpace Auston Matthews in goals. I know what I am. I know who I am,” Clifford said Thursday, decked out in Leafs gear for the first time.
“My five-year-old son Brody, his favourite player is Jake Muzzin, so he was ecstatic to get out here. He wanted to get on the first plane.”
Dubas’s connection to Clifford — a native of the village of Ayr, Ont., just an 80-minute drive from Toronto — runs deep. Clifford, 29, was Dubas’s first client in his player-agent days, and the left wing waited only a few hours after the trade to change his Twitter avatar to the Leafs logo.
“It’s no secret, I got a real love for this team, and it’s a childhood dream just to be able to put that jersey on,” Clifford said. “They’ve started to build something here the last couple years, and you can tell the town’s excited about it, and I’m just happy to be a part of it and do my best.
“It’s good attention. It’s good pressure. And I’m looking forward to it.”
Yes, as a pending UFA, Clifford is a rental for now — but one the GM and the club’s fans may wish to keep around.
Clifford’s edge and how it’s tailor-made for the post-season grind will be the first point of conversation. The man has racked up as many as 24 fights in a single NHL campaign (2010-11, pre-season through post-season). And even in this, a light season, Clifford has dropped the gloves as often as the entire conflict-adverse Maple Leafs roster combined (three).
Clifford arrives as far and away the club leader in career PIMs with 819 — comparatively, at age 36 and with 447 more games played, Jason Spezza is only at 570 — and singlehandedly begins to curb the Leafs’ reputation as being an easy team to play against, as far as bumps and bruises are concerned.
“He has some elements that we don’t have in abundance,” Dubas said. “Number 1 is, he’s still a player that you don’t have to hide. He doesn’t need to play two or three minutes a night.
“He’ll be able to play in the bottom end of our lineup and do those things with our group and hopefully get our team onto offence. And let our big guys come out in the offensive zone and roll from there.”
But Clifford is not just here to start and end scrums. The knuckles are certainly not the only portion of his hands that are useful. He has proven to be a valuable bottom-six contributor, albeit on a bad team.
Clifford’s Corsi is a Dubas-approved 54 per cent at even strength. His time on ice (11:41) has actually jumped this season from his career average, and he’s chipped in six goals and 14 points for the Kings this season. (Moore, 24, has just three goals and five points with a 49.5 Corsi this season.)
“He’s a warrior, he’s a competitor, he’s a winner. But he has that edge to his game, I think, any team can use,” Campbell said.
“The thing I’ve noticed, though, that not many people get to see behind the scenes, is how hard he works on like the skill part of this game. He brings even more than just the edge. He can put some points up.”
By dealing Moore and steering Kings GM Rob Blake away from his other, more valued forwards who could be dealt — Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Alexander Kerfoot — Dubas has managed to hold onto his best cards should he choose to play one in advance of the Feb. 24 deadline and land a defenceman.
That decision depends greatly, Dubas said, on the outlook for Morgan Rielly (broken foot) and his return date, which remains a mystery.
Simply put, if Reilly and his $5-million cap hit stay on LTIR for the remainder of the regular season, Dubas will be more encouraged to acquire a blue-liner of consequence. If Reilly is on the books, however, adding a top-four defenceman complicates the GM’s cap picture.
“We’re still a few weeks ahead of the deadline,” Dubas reminded. “We felt we needed to strike.”