The good: Kyle Clifford put together another Kyle Clifford-like season, showing versatility up and down the left side of the lineup while contributing, for the most part, honest and rugged minutes in a straightforward north-south capability. In doing so, he finished with career highs in assists, points, shots on goal and time on ice. His 8.1 shots per 60 minutes at even strength ranked sixth on the team, ahead of Justin Williams and Tanner Pearson and well above Anze Kopitar’s 5.48. Though he plays a demanding role and is a willing upper-middleweight combatant, Clifford has remained healthy and has hardly left the Kings’ lineup since breaking into the league as a 19-year-old in 2010-11, having played 356 of a possible 376 regular season games. With a 54.3% Corsi-for in five-on-five play, his possession rates are more than respectable given the role he plays and the players he’s more inclined to see the ice with. Clifford is humble and has good work and practice habits, and Darryl Sutter seemed to appreciate his bounce-back. After saying in training camp that more had been expected from Clifford the previous season, in December he said that “he’s done a really good job for us,” and on the day in February his five-year contract extension was announced, said, “I think there’s still a big upside. He’s a guy who wants to improve and will improve. He’s got a great work ethic and he’s really been an important part of playing his role on our team, which you need on a good team. And he wants to play a bigger role. You forget how young he is. He’ll play a bigger role as he continues to improve.”
The bad: Clifford’s physicality leads him towards penalty trouble, and while his minus-seven penalty differential was the second worst on the team, it was still better than the previous year, when he was a minus-11 in 71 games. While Sutter sees continued progression, where, and to what degree, could that development materialize on the scoresheet? In last year’s evaluation I asked the question whether an 11-goal, 22-point season was out of the question; at this point of the 24-year-old’s young career, reaching double digits in goals and points would appear to be a level attainable within the next several years, but is that next year? What are the chances Clifford surpasses that bar? Could he develop into a more secondary scorer, or is he firmly a role player who forechecks well and softens up the opponent with physical play while providing a spark for his teammates? At the very worst, the Kings have themselves an important role player signed long-term.
Going forward: Though Clifford rebounded well from a down year production-wise, he’s still the fourth left wing on the depth chart after Marian Gaborik, Tanner Pearson and Dwight King. It’s not quite what Derek Dorsett will make per year, but the Kings rewarded Clifford with a five-year contract that carries an average annual value of $1.6M – no small fee. It’s worth remembering that Clifford, who won’t turn 25 until January, is still very young, so he’ll have ample time – and will continue to be incubated by an experienced, accomplished group – to reach the levels Sutter foresees. “It’s where I want to be,” Clifford said after signing his February extension. “We’re a family. We all want to be here. There are 23 guys that, we bleed for each other, we love each other and that’s what makes it fun.”