The Maple Leafs have brought back 6’2, 214-pound left-winger Kyle Clifford in a trade with the St. Louis Blues, the club announced on Tuesday.
Welcome back, Cliffy
We’ve acquired forward Kyle Clifford from St. Louis in exchange for future considerations. #LeafsForever
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 16, 2021
In case it is not obvious, the reason why the Leafs didn’t claim Clifford off of waivers when he was placed on the wire yesterday and traded for him today instead: The Leafs are now free to move him (and his $1 million cap hit) back and forth between the AHL and NHL until he’s spent 30 days on the active NHL roster (or played 10 NHL games) on account of the fact that he has already cleared waivers. The initial plan is likely to get Clifford up to speed with the Marlies given he has appeared in just two games this season, partly due to his time spent in Covid protocol.
This acquisition isn’t a shocker knowing the Leafs like Clifford’s character and experience (two-time Cup winner), he was one of Kyle Dubas’ first clients in Dubas’ time as a player agent, and we can confirm the Leafs had an appetite to bring him back in the 2020 offseason based on an interview quote from Brendan Shanahan shortly after Covid shut the league down in March 2020. The Leafs ended up going a different direction in the size/toughness/veteran savvy department with the likes of Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton signed to one-year contracts the following offseason, while Clifford signed a two-year deal in St. Louis. Clifford is playing out the final year of that $1 million AAV contract this season.
In his limited time as a Leaf back in 2019-20 (21 games, 1g, 2a) after he was originally acquired as part of the Jack Campbell trade, Clifford never really got fully acclimated to his new team before the league down and then picked up again months later in the bubble. He also spent a lot of time alongside the likes of Frederik Gauthier and Jason Spezza, which didn’t necessarily lend itself to the creation of a fourth-line identity that a player of Clifford’s hard-nosed attributes would thrive on, although they did put together some good shifts in the Columbus series. On a line opposite Wayne Simmonds, it might be a fit if the Leafs decide to give that a look at some point after Clifford is up to speed again.
I'm a fan of picking up Clifford for nothing. Still think he has some gas left in the tank and he can potentially run shotgun alongside Simmonds to cause chaos.
— Anthony Petrielli (@APetrielli) November 16, 2021
With just seven points in 50 games last season, Clifford is not going to add much speed or depth scoring to the lineup, but he’s not necessarily a totally useless player in the run of play; he’s 30 years old for another few months and he graded out well in play-driving metrics such as RAPM in LA (albeit on good possession teams) where could take a competent third-line shift if needed not that long ago. It’s been a few years since the height of his career in LA, though, and he was outscored 17-11 at 5v5 over his 52 regular-season games in St. Louis. He also has never been a regular penalty killer.
That said, the Leafs PK doesn’t really need extra help, and Clifford was close to break-even in 5v5 expected Goals and shot attempt share, in addition to his eight points in 52 games over his Blues career. Despite the poor goal metrics and a really low on-ice PDO, it’s not like he was a liability defensively or playing the whole game inside his own end. He should be able to provide competent enough fourth-line depth.
However often he actually suits up, Clifford’s veteran presence is what the Leafs are really after — both the physical element on the ice and his experience of playing on winning teams in the league. What the Leafs didn’t add with their free-agent signings of Kampf, Kase, Ritchie, Bunting, and Semyonov (while losing Zach Bogosian): any significant playoff experience or Cup-winning pedigree of note. Clifford’s reuniting with Jake Muzzin in Toronto doubles the amount of Stanley Cup rings in the locker room.