Late on Wednesday night, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas pulled off the kind of trade everybody knew this team needed, picking up backup goalie Jack Campbell and big depth winger Kyle Clifford from the Los Angeles Kings for Trevor Moore and a couple of draft picks.
Campbell is, of course, the centrepiece of the deal and the player everyone in Leafs Nation is hoping can steady the ship in Frederik Andersen’s absence (however long that is) and be a reliable backup when he returns.
But Clifford is an interesting and noteworthy piece of the trade as well.
“I think this is real careful and precise trade targeting by Kyle (Dubas),” Brian Burke said on Fan 590’s Good Show. “This is a guy our players feared. He plays hard, he fights.
“The Leafs do not have a player with this player’s appetite for combat, so he’s a valuable addition…they don’t have a proper response for when their top players get drilled and now they do. I think this is not a throw in. I think he’s an important acquisition. I know other teams in the division are going, ‘Ah geez, they were much easier to play before they had this guy.'”
There’s been plenty of debate about Toronto’s lack of team toughness over the past couple of seasons, while Dubas has remained steadfast in pushing forward with a lineup overflowing with skill instead. This is the first time Dubas seems to have relented somewhat, as Clifford wouldn’t be described as a high-skill player with offensive upside.
Kyle Frank Clifford (nicknamed The Colonel for his “KFC” initials) is familiar to Dubas. Back before his GM days, Dubas was in the agenting field and used to represent Clifford. Now, his former client will bring an element of toughness the Leafs have been without for some time. Clifford has three fights this season, as many as the rest of the Leafs team combined.
But there’s more to his value. He’s got all those other elements thought to be important in the playoffs — leadership, experience, grit — that can’t really be quantified, but are nonetheless present on every Stanley Cup champion.
“When people think about the Kings over the last decade, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick get brought up, but Clifford was there for both of the teams that won the Stanley Cup,” the LA Times’ Jack Harris said on the Fan 590’s Lead Off. “He was one of the longest-tenured guys in that room and had really become a leadership guy in the way that he would play with a lot of young guys when they would get called up, playing in the bottom six of the forward lines.”
Drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft, Clifford had a career high 11 goals and 21 points just last season. That went along with 96 penalty minutes, which would have led the Leafs by 31. Though he does bring a significant edge and is a deterrent in some ways, Clifford hasn’t topped 100 penalty minutes in a season since 2011-12.
Clifford averaged just 11:41 of ice time this season with the Kings, so he won’t figure to be a game-changer on the ice — though you will notice when the 6-foot-2, 211-pounder is out there. While he adds a physical element the Leafs have been criticized for lacking, there’s something to be said for what kind of player he’ll be in the locker room as well.
“Even though he’s only 29, just a really mature guy,” Harris said. “A father of three. One of the nicest guys you’ll probably come across in an NHL room. A character guy through and through. A guy who brings a lot of playoff experience and the kind of on-ice character and toughness that a lot of teams covet.”
At the same time, while we certainly shouldn’t expect Clifford to contribute a ton of offence, it’s worth pointing out that his 52.12 Corsi-for percentage (CF%) at 5-on-5 last season was the second-best mark on the Kings, and he’s at 55.18 per cent this season. When Clifford was on the ice for the Kings at 5-on-5 this season, the team generated 57.08 per cent of the high danger chances. Los Angeles was outscored in these situations, but that could be more indicative of the team’s status as a bottom-feeder that gets outscored on most nights.
Put Clifford in this Leafs lineup and surround him with the highly skilled players they have, and those minuses should quickly turn to plusses.
Years ago, a former Kings scout once told me Clifford was so beloved by that organization that they wouldn’t trade him for Steven Stamkos. While that suggestion was certainly made tongue-in-cheek, the point was that while Clifford’s stats wouldn’t wow anyone, he had a lot of other intangibles that are highly valued.
And now, after years of debates, we’ll get to see what those unmeasurables will mean to a Leafs team getting more desperate by the day.