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LA Kings' Top 25 Under 25: #9 -- Kyle Clifford

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He's 208 pounds of sheer forechecking terror.

BOO.
BOO.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Frank Clifford is a long-time veteran now at age 23. By virtue of being an actual instead of a theoretical NHL player, and because we were too scared to place him any lower on the list, Clifford comes in at #9 in our Top 25 under 25.


Game 5 of last year's Stanley Cup Final pretty much sums up all Clifford can bring. He committed a boarding penalty and handed the Rangers a power play in overtime. Then the Kings killed it off and he went on to take part in one of the greatest goals in team history.

BOOM.

One goal and three assists in the SCF, all while playing with a broken wrist? BEEP BEEP BEEP I think Clifford just broke the Grit-o-meter!

So, sometimes he looks like a power forward. Others think he's a goon. The truth is he's a forechecking zombie (probably). Here are the many facets of Kyle Clifford.

Role as a Fighter

1. Is part of his job fighting? [X] YES
2. Is he a goon? [X] NOT SO MUCH

When Clifford burst on the scene as 19-year-old, he made a splash as a ferocious middleweight fighter who could also score. He pummeled a lot of slimy characters like Daniel Carcillo in decisive fashion and wound up near the top of the league in fighting majors (18 total).

But he didn’t have a very defensive style of fighting. I think Jim Fox was right in the middle of pointing this out when Clifford was concussed by Ryan Reaves his rookie year. 

Clifford still fights, but not nearly as often (9 or 10 times a season). This could be because he has had some concussion issues—including when he was hit from behind during the Vancouver series in 2012—but it’s also a trend followed by other role-players on the team.

The Los Angeles Kings have a reputation for being big and tough, but—like Chicago—they wound up in the bottom tier the league when it comes to fights per game. I wouldn’t expect them to drop the gloves more often going forward. They are busy getting the puck and trying to score.

So Kyle Clifford doesn’t fight as much, but neither does anyone else on the Kings anymore. Let’s look at his role as a skater.

Flashes of Scoring

3. Should we expect Clifford to score like a top 6 forward? [X] NO
4. Can he smash opponents into a bloody pulp on the forecheck? [X] YES

Since the Kings were thin at LW for years, Clifford was sometimes called to fill in on the top six. During the 2012-13 shortened season, Sutter put him on the second line with Richards and Carter. He went on a hot streak for a while, raising expectations that he was taking the next step at age 21.

Sutter said that he was disappointed in Clifford’s production last season. But take a look at his shooting percentage year by year.

2010-11: 10.1%
2011-12: 5.7% 
2012-13: 12.5%
2013-14: 4.1%

It's a seesaw. "Wow, cool" to "Much lower, what gives"--"Hot damn, he can score!" to "Arrrrgh."

In 2012-13, his hot streak while playing with Carter bumped his shooting percentage to the stratosphere of legit scorers. It was followed by a season where his scoring was at its lowest ebb.

To put this in perspective, Anze Kopitar’s career shooting percentage is 12.3%, and that is boosted by tons of power play time. 12.5% is not reasonable to expect Clifford to repeat as part of his natural growth as a player. It looks like lockout-season Clifford was getting some bounces while driving like a bull toward the net.

When a young player goes on a hot streak, it’s natural to want that all the time. But it’s more reasonable to expect a bounce-back season closer to Clifford’s career average—7.7%, pretty decent for a bottom 6 player. And that's where he should stay.

Puck Possession

5. Is Clifford going to help drive possession? [X] NO
6. Can his zombie eyes drain your life-force and terrorize your soul? [X] YES

Eric’s great season review covered his possession stats relative to his teammates (in a nutshell: not good).

I’m all for getting as many Corsi gods on the team as possible, but I think we need to bear this in mind: The Kings were still controlling play when Clifford was on the ice (53.9%). They are that good.

Fourth line players on the #1 possession team are not going to blow you away in the "Corsi relative to Anze Kopitar" category. If we were discussing a top line forward or top four defenseman, yeah, that would matter more to me. But when the Kings decide to send out a checking line with a player who can drop the gloves on occasion, it hasn't been a big deal. The Kings have enough skill on the other three lines to balance it out.

LA’s identity is being big, physical, and tough to play against. In the playoffs, they aim to keep taking the body and wear down their opponents over time. Clifford helps them do that without needing to fight. And looking around the league, there are worse options on hand for that.

Until fighting gets phased out of the NHL entirely due to lawsuits, I expect Lombardi to keep a guy like him in the bottom six instead of making room for the Linden Veys of the world there instead. Someone like Andy Andreoff could emerge this season and prove he can fill that tough forechecker/occasional fighter role too; but if not, Clifford can fit into LA’s puck possession machine.

Bottom line: Clifford’s not going to fight as much as he did in his rookie season, or score as much as he did in 2012-13, but he can still help on the forecheck and pot a few goals. Best case scenario: the Kings keep getting the kind of production like what we saw in the 2014 Final, paired with even better discipline. Or they trade him for a lot of picks.

Keep on trucking, Kyle.

And please don’t feast on my brains.