2016-17 in Review: Is Kyle Clifford part of the future plans of the Kings?

The 26-year-old enforcer is under another of the overly long, extravagant contracts offered by the loyal Dean Lombardi.

For the next month or two, we’ll be taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was: a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.

Is Kyle Clifford part of the future plans of the Kings?

Few Kings players have sacrificed their bodies with such regularity as Kyle Clifford.  Clifford is a regular in hockeyfights.com and has entertained fans with his heart, soul, and rough-and-tumble play:

Though only 26 years of age, the second round, 35th pick in 2009 occupied a key role sticking up for his teammates in the Kings’ heyday of 2012-2014. Clifford is definitely the unsung hero of the team’s core.

What few remember, however, is that Clifford, despite his heavy mobility, was originally projected to be an offensive threat.  In 2009-10 he scored 28 goals and 29 assists in 58 games with the Barrie Colts.  That scoring potential will never be realized, and though Clifford has solidified his place with the Kings, he’s also compiled a history of concussions since making the Kings after that season in Barrie.  As Jon Rosen wrote in January 2016:

...[I]t is off-putting to think about the types of injuries the rugged power forward has endured in his NHL career. Clifford has only been publicly diagnosed with a “concussion” once as a King – that was on Byron Bitz’s boarding major in the 2012 first round series against Vancouver – but suffered a “head” injury in a March, 2011 fight with St. Louis’ Ryan Reaves and an “upper-body” injury in a November, 2013 game against Vancouver in which Darryl Sutter told reporters “he got his bell rung.”

At the time, Clifford was recovering from yet another “upper body injury” suffered in December 6, 2015, when he was elbowed in the face by Victor Hedman:

With a lengthy history of concussions at such a young age (the December 6, 2015 injury caused him to miss 24 games), fans who were once entertained by his fights are now heartbroken to see him drop the gloves.  Each subsequent concussion sustained requires longer to recover.  My fear is that Clifford’s brain is slowly morphing into another exhibit in a future lawsuit against the NHL arising from the disruption and destruction caused by concussions.

The Kings are mired with too many long, extravagant contracts—Marian Gaborik until 2020-21, Dustin Brown until 2021-22, and Anze Kopitar until 2023-24.  Unfortunately, Clifford’s contract, though less lucrative, is also another one of those bad Dean Lombardi contracts.  Clifford is yet another player who has benefited from Lombardi’s quixotic loyalty.  In February 2015, Clifford signed a five-year extension with a $1.6 million cap hit until 2020—too much for an enforcer.

Clifford, over the last six seasons, has consistently averaged 10 minutes per game.  His low-level production has remained consistent as well:

  • 2011-12: 5 G, 7 A, 123 PIM (81 games)
  • 2012-13: 7 G, 7 A, 51 PIM (48 games, lockout-shortened season)
  • 2013-14: 3 G, 5 A, 81 PIM (71 games)
  • 2014-15: 6 G, 9 A, 87 PIM (80 games)
  • 2015-16: 3 G, 6 A, 55 PIM (only 56 games due to injury)
  • 2016-17: 6 G, 6 A, 92 PIM (73 games)/

What is striking, however, is that Clifford’s level of production is similar to that of Jordan Nolan and Andy Andreoff (perhaps lower if we normalize Nolan and Andreoff for an 82-game season):

Nolan ($950,000 cap hit until 2018, averages 9-10 minutes a game):

  • 2013-14: 6 G, 4 A, 54 PIM (64 games)
  • 2014-15: 6 G, 3 A, 54 PIM (60 games)
  • 2015-16: 0 G, 5 A, 38 PIM (52 games)
  • 2016-17: 4 G, 4 A, 44 PIM (46 games)/

Andreoff ($677,500 cap hit until 2019, averages 10 minutes a game):

  • 2015-16: 8 G, 2 A, 76 PIM (60 games)
  • 2016-17: 0 G, 2 A, 70 PIM (36 games)/

The only major differences between the three players are hits (Clifford hits much more) and shot percentage (Nolan at ~10% not counting 2015-16, Andreoff at ~15% not counting 2016-17, Clifford at ~5% over the last four seasons).

My prediction?  Andreoff, another left winger with a similar skill set and attitude (he fought in the first seconds of his first NHL shift), will replace Clifford.  Andreoff will also replace Nolan (since Nolan can’t seem to crack the everyday roster, I predict Nolan won’t be retained after 2018).  Andreoff, as a younger player who showed flashes of offense in 2015-16, also has more upside than Clifford, who has already shown us all we will see.

But because of Clifford’s unmovable contract, he too will pine away on the Kings roster until 2020, along with the rest of the overpaid, aging Cup core of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Marian Gaborik.  After 2019-20, his contract will expire, and we will thank Clifford for all he has done with the Kings.

(Statistical sources: hockey-reference.com, capfriendly.com)