The Toronto Sun had an article out two days ago, one of their standard sorts where it’s not just about one thing, but has whole disparate bits haphazardly glued together. It’s a sign of the times that I missed the nugget of news inside it. Not who Morgan Rielly is dating, although that is the headline, but the quote from Kyle Clifford’s agent about his desire to re-sign with the Leafs. He does. According to his agent, the Leafs want him back too.
Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be. Even if Clifford, who has great career shot-based results, failed to impress in a very small sample of time as a Maple Leaf, Sheldon Keefe sure does like having some big guys as depth. There was a general feeling, at the time of the trade that sent Trevor Moore to LA and brought Clifford to Toronto along with Jack Campbell, that Clifford was some throw in to make up the contract or cap numbers. Let’s go back and revisit that thought because it doesn’t add up.
Trevor Moore, the player who actually handed out the “go through a wall for him” quote to the media when Keefe was made Leafs coach, didn’t seem to generate the same strength of emotion coming back the other way. He had an injury, and then with convenient timing, got another one in practice, and barely played for his old coach he loved so much. Mike Babcock really liked Moore, and maybe that’s meaningful, maybe not. But no one was surprised when he was moved out. The signals had been sent he was surplus to requirements.
Campbell, in now seems, was Kyle Dubas’s target for some time as a new backup goalie. It may be that the desire to have Campbell was what took so long in sorting out that very obvious problem. The Kings, who had the identical situation to the Rangers — one aging, unreliable and overpaid starter and two prospects/backups — really did try to trade Jonathan Quick for a long time, only giving up, as GMs seem to do, when he played better for a stretch.
If the heart of the deal was moving out the depth player Keefe didn’t want for the goalie Dubas did want, what was Clifford even doing there? The Leafs had other fourth liner options. The Kings did not need to move out a salary or an SPC and they had cap space to take on the cheap Moore. The Kings, with Clifford, had an expiring UFA they did want to turn into an asset of some sort. They weren’t giving him away.
The obvious conclusion is that Clifford was a player the Leafs traded for, not a player they just ended up with. Fans who don’t like players like Clifford, or who mistook him for a fighter and nothing else, were led astray a little. I think Keefe and Dubas wanted Clifford specifically, and now it seems the Leafs are going to have him for at least another year.
Per CapFriendly, the second pick in the trade has this condition on it:
The 2021 3rd round pick upgrades to a 2nd round pick if either Kyle Clifford re-signs with Toronto OR if the Leafs make the 2019-20 playoffs and Jack Campbell wins 6 regular season games.
At this time, we don’t know if the NHL is considering making some sort of allowance for missing regular season games on pick conditions if the rest of those games are never played. We also don’t know how they will handle conditions like “make the playoffs” if there are none and no one does. Go look up the Lucic-Neal trade if you really want to see an interesting conundrum on this topic. Regardless, the pick condition will be met if play resumes, so it seems moot to worry about triggering it by re-signing Clifford. Campbell has three wins as of now, but the playoffs are a lock if no more regular season games are played, and very probable even if they are.
I think a lot of fans don’t like Clifford because he never makes any sick moves to deke around guys for a scoring chance. Which is not his role, so now we have the problem identified. If you like to imagine hockey has no roles, and teams should just “roll four lines” which was the mantra of a few years back, you won’t like a guy whose impact is mostly on the percentages, just not the Goals For %.
The trouble is, while Clifford’s 2019-2020 season to date looks like a slightly watered down version of his three-year chart shown above, his time on the Leafs was atypically bad.
He played low minutes, shot the puck himself very little (which you should expect), but failed to have any readily noticeable impact on those percentages — Expected Goals, Corsi or anything else. He actually had a little unusual luck in the Goals For department, where his on-ice GF% was a touch over Expected. It was also bad, coming in at 46% for five-on-five play. The thing is, though, the Tavares line was worse. Most of the Kerfoot line were also under 50%. The Leafs had a systemic problem of only generating those good percentages when two guys were on the ice, and Kyle Clifford did not play with Auston Matthews or William Nylander very often.
Clifford only played 16 games and 150 minutes at five-on-five, but he had a very alarming rate of Corsi Against (all shots) that occurred while he was on the ice, one nearly as bad as Morgan Rielly’s. That’s normal for Rielly to lead the Leafs in this ignominious fashion. It’s unusual for Clifford, or was when he played on the Kings, who are Corsi gods even while bad.
Should we expect LA-like numbers from him in the future? Jake Muzzin has seen his impacts on shots against erode a little (although he’s still amazingly un-Leafy) while his impact on Goals For skyrocketed by looking at Evolving Hockey’s RAPM. Toronto prioritizes offence over all else, as you may have noticed, and the players who work to mitigate the weaknesses of that system like Muzzin and Clifford, can only do so much. So we should expect something a little less Kings-like, but not quite Spring 2020 Leafs-like from Clifford in the future.
Clifford’s deal with LA was signed in 2015 when he was 24. It was a five-year contract with an AAV of $1.6 million. This was a typical LA Kings deal at a time when the team was running down from their two Stanley Cups into a collection of overpaid and over-aged players. Never averaging more than 11 minutes per game, Clifford cost more than double the cap hit of a league-minimum free agent grinder or a player like Moore coming of an ELC onto a cheap deal.
The Leafs aren’t giving the soon to be 30-year-old Clifford five years. But he’s also not Jason Spezza, who is at the very end of his career. Clifford is not signing for the super-cheap sub-one-million deal that many people will suggest is the right number.
He likely will continue to make a salary double the cheapest guy’s rate. The real questions revolve around term and structure. The Leafs are unlikely to set themselves up to be forced to protect him in the expansion draft, and they likely won’t give him more than two or three years even if they really love him.
One thing the Sun article doesn’t mention is that with no clarity at all on the cap for next season, the Leafs might slow this negotiation right down. Either way, it seems unlikely they’d commit until play resumes, but they do very much seem to want to make a deal.
Another year of Big Red Dog memes awaits us.