By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Bruins are going to begin their 2019 postseason run without defenseman Kevan Miller.
It’s become an unfortunate rite of passage of sorts, as Miller’s absence will make it three straight postseasons of the Boston blue opening action up at less than 100 percent. Add seventh defenseman John Moore’s upper-body injury to the conversation and you’re talking about the Bruins beginning the playoffs without two of their top seven defenders.
And though Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins still have a couple more skates to finalize their Game 1 lineup, it’s obvious that Miller’s loss should be first-year NHLer Connor Clifton’s gain.
When you lose Miller, you lose a physical, third-pairing defender capable of logging hard minutes (defensive zone starts, penalty kills, late-game lead protection shifts, etc.) and a player whose skating game tends to fly a little under the radar.
Clifton and veteran journeyman Steven Kampfer are in the building as Cassidy’s options to replace that.
But Monday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena saw Kampfer skate to Matt Grzelcyk’s right.
It seems a little odd, all things considered.
When you talk about replacing Miller and his aforementioned skills and strengths, the 23-year-old Clifton comes to mind almost immediately, as you’ve seen the Bruins scratch the surface of similar qualities and upside in his game. Though he’s just 5-foot-11, Clifton hits like a truck, and he’s proven that he isn’t afraid to show off his nasty side when the situation calls for it.
Connor Clifton introduces himself to Mathieu Joseph pic.twitter.com/Lnxyd0O3F6— Bruins (Guy Boston Sports) (@Bruins_GBos) March 26, 2019
Clifton also has a strong skating game — and a relatively solid sense of offensive timing and spatial awareness when pushing play the other way — to go with his physicality, making him a potentially solid addition to this series. He’s essentially a still-developing hybrid of what makes Miller and Moore effective bottom-pairing defenders for the B’s when healthy.
“The growth in his game has been very good,” Cassidy said of Clifton following the team’s regular season finale. “He’s a very competitive guy, so this time of year that’s one of the most important things and certainly an identity of our club. I think he’s more comfortable moving the puck, when to make a play, when to join the rush. Certainly physical, will take an opportunity to finish his checks, and this time of year that becomes, that increases with every team. So, I like where he’s at with his game.”
It’s a seemingly ringing endorsement from the man creating the playoff lineup.
But there’s also the fact that Clifton skated in a greater role than Kampfer in recent weeks.
Since Mar. 16, Clifton has appeared in nine games while Kampfer drawn in for eight contests.
Clifton’s averaged 18:33 over that stretch, while Kampfer’s 15:10 per night ranks as the lowest among 10 Boston defenders to suit up over that span. In the eight games with both Kampfer and Clifton in the lineup, Clifton finished with more time on ice than Kampfer in all but one (Mar. 16 against the Blue Jackets). In fact, Clifton averaged about 3:20 more of time on ice than Kampfer in their eight games in action together. That seems significant when talking about the coaching staff’s in one defenseman over the other.
Perhaps most telling (at least in my opinion), though, is that Cassidy trusted Clifton for over 20 minutes in the team’s road meeting with the Lightning on Mar. 25. Clifton’s upped usage was a result of John Moore’s in-game injury, sure, but Kampfer logged just 13:18 that night, and was by all means benched when the Bruins shortened their bench in the third period.
And in Boston’s Game 82 against a Lightning — a game that mean nothing for the Bruins in the standings but came with a focus on the team’s neutral zone structure and movement given Tampa Bay’s similarities to Toronto on that front — Clifton once again finished with significantly more minutes of action than Kampfer (almost five and a half minutes, to be exact).
Again, you’d consider this telling.
But this is about more than ice time.
The Bruins are pretty much locked into their top four pairings; Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy will be the Black and Gold’s top pairing and go-to shutdown group, while Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo will man their second pairing. The regular season suggests that the Krug-Carlo pairing will be almost stapled to the Bergeron Line, especially on home ice. So you’re essentially talking about a spot to the right of Matt Grzelcyk to be had by either Clifton or Kampfer.
Clifton, once again, appears to have an edge on this front.
In just under 44 minutes of even-strength time together this season, the Grzelcyk-Clifton pairing posted a possession mark over 66 percent, and outshot the opposition 25-15. That’s with having just as many defensive-zone faceoffs (12) as offensive-zone faceoffs, too. The only ‘blemish’ against this group was that they were outscored by a whopping 0-1 mark. The Grzlecyk-Kampfer pairing, meanwhile, logged 48 minutes of action together, and outscored opponents 3-2. They also surrendered a bit more than the Grzelcyk-Clifton pair, though, with 23 shots against, as well as 15 scoring chances against.
There’s pretty much nothing other than ‘experience’ that favors the idea of plugging Kampfer in over Clifton. And not even that appears to work, as Kampfer has yet to skate in a Stanley Cup Playoff game in his 201-game, eight-season NHL career.
In other words: It’s Clifton Season.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.