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Kyle Clifford to explore free agency

The Kings lose out on an upgraded draft pick if the forward doesn’t re-sign with Toronto.

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 10:Kyle Clifford #73 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up before facing the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Scotiabank Arena on March 10, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Free agency is just around the corner, officially beginning just two days after the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, which is set to be held virtually on October 6 and 7. With that October 9 deadline in sight, it appears as though former Kings forward Kyle Clifford will be hitting the open market.

The 29-year-old’s agent told Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun that Clifford will not be re-signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs and that the team has been made aware of his intentions.

In early February 2020, the Kings traded Clifford and goaltender Jack Campbell to the Maple Leafs in exchange for forward Trevor Moore, a third-round draft selection in 2020 and a conditional third-round selection in 2021. The Kings also retained 50 percent of Clifford’s salary for the remained of the season.

The Leafs needed that extra bit of cap relief, as the team was pressed to the ceiling in what was expected to be a playoff push, before losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. That cap crunch appears to be coming home to roost, with CapFriendly estimating around $6 million in cap space and seven restricted free agents waiting on a contract before even approaching the ten pending unrestricted free agents. Clifford is unlikely to be the only departure come October 9.

As inevitable as it seems, it does carry a bit of bad news for the Kings: the 2021 pick they received from Toronto will not be upgraded to a second-rounder.

This condition has already been through the wringer, originally upgrading on the conditions that either Clifford re-signs, or if the Leafs make the 2019-20 playoffs and Jack Campbell wins six regular season games. Due to the shortened season, the second condition was later changed by the NHL so that it would happen if the Leafs win their qualifying round series and Jack Campbell gets two or more wins.

Thanks to the Blue Jackets, that second condition wasn’t met, landing all hope into the Kyle Clifford basket, which seemed like the less likely of the two options. The twins behind Evolving-Hockey have used previous contract data to build a model to predict a player’s next contract. Their model has Clifford in the ballpark of a two-year, $1.729 million average annual value on the open market. Were he to stay with the Leafs, their model drops that number to $1.463 million — not a significant savings for the Leafs, but a big enough difference to make exploring his options worth it for Clifford.

Even without the upgraded pick, the Kings still have 10 picks in the 2021 Draft, including two picks in each of the second, third and fourth rounds. As for the upcoming 2020 Draft, they’ll have 11 picks, starting with second overall.