As I’m sure is the case for many of us, Kyle Clifford wants the Leafs to be back in action. In a conference call interview on May 14, Clifford made his case for getting back to playing for the Stanley Cup.

“Just speaking with the guys on our team, there’s a real strong appetite to get playing no matter the circumstances. We look at our group and we like our chances. We know it’s not going to be easy, but at the same time, there’s an exciting group here.”

“Obviously do it safely, but I think the team is hungry to get back playing, and the fans are hungry for us to get back playing as well.”

The appetite is understandable, of course. Professional athletes like those in the NHL don’t get to where they are without an undying sense of competitiveness and an unquenchable thirst for greatness.

For the Leafs, living and playing in the biggest city in Canada, a restart would be an unenviable challenge for team health officers and local, provincial and federal public health officials.

Ultimately, for Clifford, the journey is about winning his 3rd Stanley Cup of his career, the first two coming with the Los Angeles Kings. On whether a different format for the Cup might be looked upon differently in history, Clifford said:

“Obviously we’re not dealing with ideal times. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to continue playing, and I think that was the best decision for the safety of the players, the fans, and the communities.”

“It’s going to be different, but I think playing for a Stanley Cup is better than not playing for a Stanley Cup at all, regardless of the format.”

“It’s the greatest feeling, other than having your children born, it’s definitely been my greatest experience in my life.”

Playoff Formats

The league is currently looking at different scenarios on how to return to play safely and finish this season out. From this May 11 article on ESPN from Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski:

  • The league is looking at four “hub” cities to play the playoffs in, “though the NHL is not in any rush to firm up where those hub cities will be — largely because there’s still too much unknown about what the landscape will look like later this summer.”
  • Games will likely be played without fans. “The NHL is deep into planning for games to be played without fans if the season is restarted.”
  • There probably won’t be a finish to the regular season. “The league is currently focused on jumping directly to the Stanley Cup playoffs rather than attempting to complete the regular season ahead of the playoffs.”

And from Larry Brooks of the New York Post on May 7: “the NHL’s reopening plan has shifted from completing the 2019-20 regular season to instead staging a 24-team tournament that would include a best-of-three play-in round.”

Should He Stay or Should he Go?

In March, our editor Jon Steitzer covered the question of whether or not to re-sign Kyle Clifford, so I’ll try not to re-say anything that was said here. I recommend reading that piece as all of the information shared within is still pertinent.

In my view, Clifford has been a fresh injection of toughness that the team lacked. It’s not that you have to be big and strong like Clifford to be tough, but other players who brought toughness to this team have left, Nazem Kadri being the most recent and obvious example. Needless to say, Clifford has been a positive addition in that department. He doesn’t just throw his body around aimlessly though; he is an effective hockey player as a result of his physicality.

As covered in the earlier article, the price Toronto paid for Clifford included a conditional 2020 third round pick, that would become a second round pick if he re-signed with us.

Ultimately, there are two important considerations:

  1. Do the Leafs have someone that can perform that role as well or better, for as much or cheaper?
  2. Is Kyle Clifford worth the difference in a 2nd round pick vs. a 3rd round pick over that player?

When the replacement options are Adam Brooks, Jeremy Bracco, Pontus Aberg, Nic Petan, Kenny Agostino, Nick Robertson and Denis Malgin, the qualitative replacement just isn’t there. Since dealing Mason Marchment, the Leafs don’t have a bubble player that can be tough in the way that they need. However, if the Leafs feel they can roll without that toughness in the future, then certainly there are cheaper options for decent 4th line players that the Leafs can use.

For players with 1750 minutes of time on ice over the last 3 seasons, Clifford ranks 69th in the league in reducing shot attempts against. That’s impressive, and

The Leafs don’t have many depth forwards that are noted for contributing defensively. There’s definitely a lot more we need to learn about the likes of Robertson, Bracco and Brooks, and Nic Petan hasn’t even gotten 500 minutes of ice time in the last 3 seasons. However, for Agostino, Malgin and Aberg, we know enough. Of that group, the only one with better defensive impacts is Agostino, with only 700-ish minutes to Clifford’s near 2000. Malgin and Aberg both have over 1500 minutes, but allow significantly more attempts when they’re on the ice.

Toronto’s group of forwards outside of Clifford speaks for itself in terms of offense, but the ability to play team defense is questionable. It’s not a Matt Martin situation either, where the defensive results are good but the overall effect on the game is bad. Over the last 3 seasons, Clifford generates shot attempts for his team near the middle of the league. Of 312 forwards who’ve played over 1750 minutes of time on ice, Clifford ranks 136th in shot attempts for, above the likes of Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel. So if he can keep up with the group on offense, and significantly benefit the group on defense, it’d be best to keep him right? Wrong.

Salary Cap

On Clifford’s last contract, he signed for $1.6M per season in 2015, a 5-year contract with the Kings. The Kings were one year removed from winning the Stanley Cup, a team which Clifford played a big role on.

That $1.6M represented 2.32% of the total salary cap in that 2015-2016 season. Comparatively, the salary cap for the 2020-21 season is expected to be between $84M and $88M, though the history of these projections tells us that it will be close to if not exactly $84M. Under that salary cap, Clifford would be worth at least $1.95M against the cap. This doesn’t take into account several factors: his age, his free agent expiry status (restricted FA versus unrestricted FA), and his team’s relative salary cap woes. The Maple Leafs run arguably the tightest salary cap ship in NHL salary cap history, so there’s no room for extra money to depth players.

If Clifford signs under his expected market value, approximately $2M, then of course that’s a win in general. But still, the Leafs can’t afford even that much for what amounts to a 12th forward on this team. Using PuckPedia’s myGM tool, I’ve come up with the following projection for next year (some notes are included at the bottom).

Note 1: Re-signed Clifford ($1.8M), Mikheyev ($1.8M), and Dermott ($2.3M)

Note 2: There was no function to call up Barabanov since the 2020-21 season hasn’t started yet, so Max Veronneau is a placeholder for his $925k cap hit.

Note 3: There is no room for a 13th forward on this team, which most teams would be uncomfortable with

I’m no expert at signing NHL players or deciding salary cap amounts, so these numbers are not going to be accurate, but they’re pretty close. The biggest problem with this is that there was no room to sign Jason Spezza, who arguably would be able to provide a bigger overall impact than Clifford. I may explore that in a future post, but for now it’s enough to say that with an $84M cap, the Leafs will have to choose between Spezza, Clifford, or two AHL call-up guys, like Brooks, Bracco, Korshkov, Petan, Aberg etc.

Final Thoughts

I won’t say that the Maple Leafs definitely shouldn’t be interested in Clifford. He’s a good player and seems to fit in well with what this team needs. The salary cap implications are the most important to figure out and most difficult, also. He’s definitely bringing something that the team lacks. The pick compensation to LA is a consideration but not a major one (the difference between a 2nd round pick and a 3rd round pick is marginal at best). The fans and his teammates seem to like him.

It’s tempting to want a player like him to stick around no matter what. But, they need to be Bob Barker about this and ensure that the price is right.