Can Clifton Overcome a Clogged Bruins Blue Line?

A two-way defenseman with one assist in 19 regular-season appearances. The stats don’t scream NHL-ready, but Connor Clifton is just that.

His presence on the ice only aided the Boston Bruins throughout the 2018-19 season. What the offensive-savvy blueliner lacked in point totals was made up for in other sectors of the playing surface.

Boston Bruins Connor Clifton
Boston Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton contributed in many ways throughout his 19-game stint in the 2018-19 season. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

His 5-foot-11 frame looked more like an 11-foot-5 wrecking ball due to the way he dished out hits and worked his way into post-whistle scrums. He worked hard along the boards, in the corners, and was often rewarded with possession because of it.

Beyond his play behind the blue line, Clifton thrived in the neutral zone. Despite not even playing 20 games in the NHL, the 24-year-old had the poise of a veteran when the puck was on his stick. He wasn’t afraid to skate the puck into the attacking zone nor make stretch passes – attributes that allowed him to thrive with the Quinnipiac Bobcats in the NCAA. His confidence in himself was contagious as the coaches simply let him play his game.

Capitalizing on Injuries

Kevan Miller, who has earned the reputation of a tough, shutdown Boston blueliner over the course of the past six seasons, was the victim of multiple injuries during the 2018-19 campaign. Due to his misfortune, the 31-year-old competed in just 39 games.

He wasn’t the only Bruins defenseman who had suffered injuries this past season, so the team was forced to test many of its blooming prospects. Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jeremy Lauzon each received two-game stints in Boston but didn’t stick (though Vaakanainen was ushered out due to an injury of his own).

Boston Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller only appeared in 39 games during the 2018-19 season due to injury. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In nine games between Nov. 16 and Dec. 4, Clifton was trusted with over 20 minutes of ice time on four occasions – he even logged over 24 minutes in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. While he was mainly covering for the injured Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara at the time, he turned enough heads to earn himself a second look when Miller went down with his second injury of the season.

During the final 10 games of the campaign, Clifton averaged nearly 18 minutes per contest. While he only provided his sole point of the season during this time, the blueliner recorded 16 shots on goal, blocked six of his opponents’ shots, and threw a whopping 23 hits. The New Jersey native may not have been as reliable of a defender as Miller, but he matched the veteran’s physicality and surpassed him in offensive skill.

A common debate amongst fans and media last season was the Bruins’ lack of toughness. Some argued that the B’s needed to add an enforcer, others claimed that speed and skill were becoming the cornerstone of the new NHL, rendering a tough-guy virtually useless. Clifton was supplying both on a nightly basis, and the bickering seemed to subside.

Clifton’s Playoff Explosion

When the Bruins were pinned against the Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, nearly every fan and media personality predicted a long series. The matchup was destined for seven games, and when that seventh game came, Boston came out on top.

As the B’s dove deeper into their playoff run, a big concern became the resolve of the team’s younger players. Though he remained a strong powerplay quarterback, McAvoy’s playmaking abilities were held at bay throughout much of the Stanley Cup run. The same could be said about Matt Grzelcyk; after his strong showing against Toronto, he slowly grew silent for the remainder of the postseason.

Matt Grzelcyk Bruins
Matt Grzelcyk’s offensive skills were put to the test during the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup run in 2019. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Meanwhile, Brandon Carlo was making his playoff debut having suffered a number of untimely injuries that kept him out of Boston’s previous two playoff runs. David Pastrnak and Jake DeBrusk didn’t look like themselves and Danton Heinen only mustered six points in 24 games. It was up to the veterans to provide consistent production.

Clifton only appeared in Games 1 and 2 against Toronto, averaging just 12:14 in time on ice across those contests. He remained quiet during the Bruins’ second-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets up until Game 5. That’s when he began making a significant impact.

Averaging just 10:45 in ice time during Games 5 and 6, Clifton tallied an assist in each meeting, earning the trust of his coaches. The blueliner was subsequently given more playing time during the team’s third-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, logging over 18 minutes in Game 1.

His ice time was bumped up to 19:28 in Game 2 which is when Clifton potted his first-ever NHL goal. After recording just four shots in the nine games prior, the two-way defenseman registered seven in the following nine. It was clear that the goal resulted in a confidence boost offensively. He would go on to score the Bruins’ first goal of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final in the second period of Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues.

Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton
Boston Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton celebrating his first NHL goal in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

The 24-year-old was scratched for Game 7 of the Final. Instead, a recovering Grezlcyk was moved into the lineup and a beaten-up John Moore held onto his spot instead of Clifton. While Grzelcyk did score Boston’s lone goal, the decision to scratch Clifton instead of Moore was puzzling, to say the least.

No. 75’s ice time did start to plummet in Games 4 through 6 of the Final, but his performance didn’t seem to justify this downtick. He looked strong defensively throughout the series and injected himself into the blood vessels of the game on every shift. In total, he registered 13 hits and 11 blocked shots in Games 1 through 6 and seemed to resolve the penalty trouble he got himself into during Games 2 and 3. It may not have changed the result, but many questioned why Clifton did not remain in the lineup for Game 7.

Earning a Starting Role

This summer, Clifton will be looking to earn his way into Boston’s starting lineup. However, the odds don’t seem to be in his favor.

For starters, the Bruins have plenty of defensemen with NHL experience. It is expected that McAvoy and Chara will make up the B’s top duo once again during the 2019-20 season with Carlo and Torey Krug slotting into the second pairing. That leaves just two spots open – spots Grzelcyk, Moore, and Miller are already fighting for.

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins, Fantasy Hockey
With a plethora Bruins defensemen like Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug already solidifying starting roles Connor Clifton’s path to the NHL is a steep mountain to climb. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

Clifton will also have to overcome an overpopulated prospect pool. First-round selection Vaakanainen is a promising offensive defenseman who the Bruins hope will bring the same impact as Krug. Lauzon and Zboril are also in the picture, both of whom are showing promise as well as having been called up during the 2019-20 season like Clifton.

The Bruins could look to clear cap space by moving on from one of their older defensemen, but even that wouldn’t make Clifton’s path to NHL minutes all that easier. The chances of such a trade are slim in the first place considering Boston’s status as a Cup contender.

Given the fact that Clifton signed a contract extension (coming into effect after the 2019-20 season), it seems as though the B’s are keen on keeping him around – but where is the question. Will he slot into Boston’s bottom pairing? Will they keep him scratched for a rainy day? Or will they stow him down in the AHL until an opportunity presents itself? The possibilities seem endless, but one thing is certain: Clifton has a steep mountain to climb before he receives regular NHL minutes.