BOSTON - Eight months ago, Connor Clifton was still just dipping his toes into the choppy waters that are life in professional hockey. The blue liner was beginning his second season with Providence and was somewhere around 12th on the Bruins' defensive depth chart.
But opportunity can come quickly in the National Hockey League. And when it did, Clifton made sure to take advantage.
A rash of injuries to Boston's defense corps in November forced the Quinnipiac alum into the lineup for his NHL debut in Dallas, launching a nine-game stint with the Black & Gold through early December that clearly left an impression on the Bruins' brass.
When the injury bug struck the Bruins' backline again in mid-March, Clifton was recalled from Providence once more. This time, he never returned.
Clifton played 10 of the final 12 regular-season contests and earned himself a spot on the postseason roster, before suiting up for 18 of Boston's 24 playoff games, notching a pair of goals and three assists, while becoming a dependable right-side option for coach Bruce Cassidy.
The 24-year-old's efforts were clearly appreciated as he was rewarded with a three-year contract extension on Monday afternoon, worth an annual cap hit of $1 million. Life, as they say, can come at you fast.
"No," Clifton said matter-of-factly when asked if he could have envisioned such a deal when he left Quinnipiac in the spring of 2017. "But, I mean, I'm always a guy that will take little steps at a time. After college, I end up in the American League in Prov, and I was thrilled about that. And I've come pretty far in the past year and a half or two years since that happened. So, it's been a good ride so far, but hopefully it's just the beginning."
Video: STL@BOS, Gm1: Clifton puts Bruins on the board
Clifton is entering the second year of a two-year entry-level contract that he signed in May 2018, following his inaugural campaign with the Providence Bruins, during which he played 54 games. The New Jersey native's new contract will kick in for the 2020-21 season.
"I think it was a little unorthodox, me being on my first year of my entry level and still having one more [year] remaining," Clifton said during a conference call from New Jersey on Wednesday morning. "I don't want to say I was surprised, maybe a little when it was first introduced to me, but I was thrilled about it. I guess experiencing what it's like in Boston [for] however many months this year, six months or so, it's exactly where I want to be with the group I want to be with every day. After that, it was an easy decision."
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound right shot has certainly come a long way since being selected by the Coyotes in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Clifton elected to play all four years at Quinnipiac - helping the Bobcats to the national title game in 2016 - and opted to become a free agent in the spring of 2017 when he signed an AHL contract with the P-Bruins.
"I ended up with three American League [offers], and after talking with my agent [Alex Schall], my family, we felt this was the best opportunity," said Clifton. "When I signed my American League deal, I was the only righty defenseman that would be in Prov, and that's exactly what happened.
"Early on, I was scratched a bunch of games in the beginning of the year, and while I was sitting there, there were six lefty D in the lineup. So, that was pretty crazy, and that was a big part. My agent loved the organization, and he thought I fit in well."
Indeed, he did.
Following his NHL debut in Dallas, during which he dropped the gloves with veteran forward Jason Spezza, Cliffy Hockey - as termed by P-Bruins coach Jay Leach - became a bit of a phenomenon.
"This year I think was a huge step in my career," said Clifton. "Having a game like in Dallas in my NHL debut was pretty crazy. It happened so fast, and then I'm playing in the NHL. I was also playing with [Jakub] Zboril, who was playing his debut too. Just how it happened was pretty crazy. It was a huge step this year in my career, but I want to continue to make strides and be the best player I can be."
Video: CAR@BOS, Gm2: Clifton pads lead with first NHL goal
Clifton's unorthodox mix of skating, assertiveness, physicality, and, well, just about everything - Cassidy actually thought Clifton was a winger the first time he watched him play at the 2017 rookie tournament in Buffalo - quickly elevated his stock within the organization.
"Connor did a really good job, and he deserved to play - all the situations he did," said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. "He took advantage of it, provided a lot of depth for our club. Obviously, we missed Kevan Miller. I think moving forward, we just recognized 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."
With Miller (knee) and John Moore (shoulder) likely to begin the 2019-20 season out of the lineup, and questions surrounding the contracts of restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, there could be plenty of opportunity on Boston's right side come September. Nevertheless, Clifton knows he must shore up some parts of his game if he wants to keep a spot on the roster heading into his second NHL season.
"I don't think a couple compliments make you want to stop being the player you are," said Clifton, who scored his first NHL goal during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against Carolina. "I still want to make every aspect of my game better…. I think just a little bit of everything. The play after that, I guess, is come to camp and make the team. Obviously we've got - I don't even know how many defensemen, great defensemen who can play in the NHL. I think I have to take that upon myself and be ready for September and try to make the Boston Bruins."
He will have to make that time count during what will be an abbreviated summer following the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final. The blue liner, who said his body is feeling good following the that two-month grind, took the last three weeks to unwind and reflect on his rookie year, but has been back in the gym over the last few days.
"It's a shortened summer, so obviously I have to deal with that, which is pretty new to me," said Clifton. "Each day, each week, matters more so than when you have a four, four and half month summer, but I think we have a lot of resources and ways to attack the summer even though it's a little shorter."
Ultimately, no matter the limitations, Clifton will have plenty of motivation to come back stronger in Year 2.
"The experience I feel like I got from playing in the NHL alone, never mind the whole playoff push we had," said Clifton. "When you look back on it, it was an incredible journey. Obviously, got that taste in our mouth, making it to Game 7 and not coming up with the Stanley Cup. You can put that in your pocket and save it for this coming season."
Video: Clifton discusses new contract extension