One of the biggest surprises across the National Hockey League is Connor Clifton of the Boston Bruins.
The Boston Bruins are injury plagued at the moment. Patrice Bergeron, Kevan Miller, Urho Vaakanainen and Charlie McAvoy are all on the shelf at the moment. With four critical Bruins injured, Cam Neely, Don Sweeney and the Bruins front office has had to call on many Providence Bruins to take spots in the lineup.
One of those Providence Bruins is Connor Clifton. Clifton is 23 year old and hails from Long Beach, New Jersey. He’s a 5’11” 174 pound right handed defenseman.
USNTDP & College
Oddly enough, not many folks across the NHL have heard much about Clifton prior to this season. He wasn’t supposed to be as effective in the defensive zone as he is, but let’s look at how Clifton got to this point. From 2008 to 2010, Clifton was playing Bantam hockey in New Jersey and varsity high school hockey in New York. In 2010, he decided to play travel hockey and joined the New Jersey Hitmen of the EMJHL. His three seasons with the Hitmen caught the eye of scouts of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (USNTDP).
After spending two seasons with the USNTDP, he played for USA Hockey in the World Junior – U18 Championships. Clifton played on a very stacked USA team which featured Thatcher Demko of the Vancouver Canucks, Will Butcher of the New Jersey Devils, Steven Santini of the New Jersey Devils, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, J.T. Compher of the Colorado Avalanche and John Hayden of the Chicago Blackhawks. In his 7 games at the WJC-U18, he had a goal, 2 PIM and -3. All-in-all, it wasn’t bad and his performance caught the eye of professional scouts.
In 2013, the Arizona (at the time they were Phoenix) Coyotes selected Clifton in the fifth round of the entry draft. Clifton never ended up signing an entry-level contract with Arizona. Instead, he played four years of collegiate hockey at Quinnipiac University. During his time at Quinnipiac, he was an integral part of the Quinnipiac Bobcats’ two Frozen Four appearances. In addition, he also showed that he can be electric in both zones. In his 2015-2016 campaign, he was outstanding in the offensive zone. He registered 7 goals and 21 assists in 43 games played. While the following season wasn’t as fruitful in the offensive zone, he was still a vital asset to the Bobcats’ success and caught the eye of the Boston Bruins organization.
Last season, he made his debut with the Providence Bruins. All-in-all, he wasn’t half bad in Providence. In 54 games played, he registered 4 goals, 9 assists, 35 PIM and a +11. He showed that he was definitely more of a two-way defenseman and less of an offensive demon. Honestly, that’s not a bad thing. The Bruins are loaded with offensive defensemen including Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy, so if Clifton is going to stay long-term, he’d likely need to demonstrate more two-way capabilities.
This season, he began with Providence, but after 14 games, he found himself making his NHL debut. You can make the argument that Clifton might have needed another a year or two at the AHL level, but after witnessing him at the AHL level, it’s hard to think that he can’t stay for the long haul.
He’s truly been impressive since his call up. Clifton has played in 7 games to this point and has a 56.4 corsi-for percentage, 18:02 ATOI, 6 blocks, 13 hits and a 64.2 offensive zone start percentage.
The thing that is interesting about how the Bruins are using Clifton is that they are having him in play in the offensive zone quite a bit. His oZS% is pretty high for someone who hasn’t been a scoring threat since his days in college. Perhaps, the Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy believes that he’ll start showing solid offensive attributes.
In the defensive zone, Clifton isn’t timid about laying a hit from time to time. In the GIF below, you can see Clifton laying down Connor Brown of the Toronto Maple Leafs with an open-ice check in the Bruins defensive zone. He’s also not shy about dropping the gloves as he showed Bruins fans when they took on the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Arena. Clifton ended up fighting Jason Spezza of the Stars during that match-up.
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) November 27, 2018
While the sample size is relatively small, if Clifton keeps up his positive performance, the Bruins could decide to keep him in the line-up long-term and trade some of their defensive assets. The Bruins have many defensemen who could fetch solid value at the deadline and the Bruins could definitely use another depth centre.
stats from NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, eliteprospects.com