It’s been an interesting couple of years for Connor Clifton.
A product of the U.S. National Team Development Program and standout at Quinnipiac University, Clifton’s impressive resume did not guarantee any semblance of smooth sailing when it came to making the jump up to the pro ranks.
Inking an AHL contract with the Providence Bruins, Clifton’s first few games with the Baby B's actually saw him placed in a bottom-six role at forward, with the club looking to find where best to utilize a blueliner lauded for his physical style of play and plus hockey IQ.
Two years later, the Bruins seem to have found their answer — and it’s a well-deserved spot up in the NHL ranks.
While names like Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril might have taken precedence over Clifton when it came to top prospects at the outset of the 2018-19 campaign, no B’s player arguably made the most of their opportunity quite as much as Clifton did this past year, becoming a key cog on Boston’s blue line en route to a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Appearing in 18 of Boston’s 24 playoff matchups this spring, Clifton helped assuage some of the Bruins’ fears when it came to their third D pairing, filling in admirably for veteran Kevan Miller, who missed the entire postseason due to a pair of fractures in the same kneecap.
Clifton’s trial by fire certainly left an impression on the Bruins’ top brass, as the club announced Monday morning that the 24-year-old defenseman signed a three-year contract extension worth a total of $3 million.
The extension does not kick in until after the 2019-20 season concludes, with Clifton only costing the B’s $725,000 this year before getting a relatively minor pay raise of $1 million over each of the following three years before hitting free agency again in 2023.
“Connor did a really good job, and he deserved to play,” Don Sweeney said of Clifton’s efforts this past postseason. “All the situations he did. He took advantage of it, provided a lot of depth for our club. Obviously, we missed Kevan Miller. I think moving forward, we just recognize that there’s a lot of value in what Connor brings to the table. You can slot him in. He was out of the lineup, and he’d go back in and play the exact same way. There’s a lot of value there.”
When projecting Clifton’s role in a crowded D corps at the start of the 2019-20 campaign, a $725,000 cap hit already stands as outstanding value, with the right-shot D expected to earn some starting reps out of camp with both Miller and John Moore (shoulder surgery) likely sidelined to start the new year.
Even if one was to just view Clifton as a depth piece in the same vein as, say, a Steven Kampfer, there’d be few qualms about his new contract — both in terms of cost and especially length.
But when you factor in both the expected progression of Clifton’s game and the changing state of Boston’s D corps — this is looking like more and more of a masterstroke by Sweeney and Co.