2017-18 In Review: The Last of a Dying Breed

With their philosophy shifting towards skill and creativity, is there still room on the Kings for bruisers Kyle Clifford and Nate Thompson?

While the 2017-18 season ended with more of a whimper than Kings fans hoped for, we still learned a lot about the team, its players, and the direction for the future. Over the course of the next month, we’ll dive into the Kings’ roster and take a look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what things might look like in the coming season. Today, we’ll examine whether Kyle Clifford and Nate Thompson still have a place on this current iteration of the Kings.

Grit. Jam. Sandpaper. Just about any interview with former Kings’ general manager Dean Lombardi would be peppered with metaphors like those when describing his beloved team. Smothering their competition and winning low-scoring battles was long the hallmark of these Kings, often cited as the league’s toughest team to play against.

That now feels like another lifetime ago. Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter are gone. Jordan Nolan, known primarily for his willingness to drop the gloves and often cited as one of the “glue guys” in the locker room, was traded almost immediately after Rob Blake assumed GM duties. This offseason, Andy Andreoff saw the same fate after Blake traded the enforcer to Tampa Bay, re-acquiring goaltender Peter Budaj. The message from Blake has been clear: you need to bring something more to the table  than just a willingness to take a punch for your team.

Which is not to say the Kings are abandoning toughness all together. Kyle Clifford, 27, is set to enter his ninth season with the Kings. More well-rounded than Nolan and Andreoff, Clifford missed a significant number of games for the second time in three seasons. When he is healthy, he is a proven “low-event” player, keeping the puck out of dangerous areas and sucking up ice time while his more talented teammates get a breather.

More fans will associate “The Colonel” and his toothy grin with dropping the gloves and delivering big hits than they would for playing a sound possession game. Even in that regard, Clifford demonstrated more discipline last year, cited for only two fighting majors. While that was by far the lowest number of his career, he still took 14 minor penalties, a heavy number for his 50 games played.

One reason for Clifford’s uptick in minor penalties may have stemmed from Stevens’ usage of the winger. Generally lined up with Trevor Lewis and Nick Shore, Clifford started in the defensive zone 55% of the time, by far the highest number of his career. The trio was effective in their shutdown assignments, controlling 54.7% of shot attempts and 56.5% of scoring chances at 5v5.

Upon his return from injury, one of Clifford’s primary line-mates was Nate Thompson. Acquired with Dion Phaneuf in the Marian Gaborik trade, Thompson assumed the role of Nick Shore, who went the other way in the same deal. Valued for his face-off winning prowess (56.7% with the Kings), Thompson saw heavy deployment in the defensive zone, starting there 62% of the time.

While he has a reputation as a physical player, he manages to keep his penalties relatively low. He took no majors last year, with only one in each of his previous three seasons in Anaheim. Like Clifford and his gift for shot-suppression, Thompson’s place on this roster is all about his utility in winning face-offs, more-so than throwing his weight around.

The duo saw most of their time with the now departed Torrey Mitchell, controlling 50% of shot attempts with the three of them on the ice.  On an individual basis, Thompson struggled in that regard, recording a 43.3 Corsi-for percentage. That is in line with his career averages and jibed with the eye test, as his lines would routinely get pinned in their own zone.

Thompson’s success at the dot is not the only thing keeping him on the roster, as Stevens leaned on him heavily as one of the Kings’ primary penalty killers, averaging 1:53 a game in short-handed ice time. The results are in his favor, as the Kings already-excellent penalty kill became even more efficient after his arrival, going from 84.5% up to nearly 90% over Thompson’s 26 games, helping them finish at the top of the league with an 85% success rate.

With John Stevens showing a willingness to be far more specialized in his player usage than Darryl “There are no first lines or fourth lines” Sutter, figure Thompson and Clifford to play significant roles for the Kings in the upcoming season. While this may come much to the chagrin of this blog’s readership, the Kings are not especially deep once you get past the 14 forwards likely to make the roster.

Sure, we would likely prefer to see Jonny Brodzinski, Michael Amadio and top prospect Gabriel Vilardi awarded ice time over Clifford and Thompson. And it is probably overkill to have them both in the line-up at the same time if everyone is healthy, considering scoring depth is what has plagued this team for years. But the two veterans provide a decent safety net for the team, absorbing the tougher assignments and putting the younger, more skilled forwards in a position to best utilize their gifts.

Yes, the league has shifted towards speed and skill, with fighting all but extinct (Kings-Ducks tilts aside). But the nature of the sport is still very much physical and coaches value players that bring an edge. Just look at the contracts highly-regarded general managers awarded Ryan Reaves and Tom Wilson this past offseason as proof.

The role of the enforcer has evolved rather than disappeared. Clifford and Thompson still have their place.