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Clifford's Rookie Campaign Exceeds Expectations

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
In the weeks and months following the 2009 NHL Draft, when other general managers talked trade with the Kings’ Dean Lombardi, one name came up: Kyle Clifford.

Was there a bit of non-buyer’s remorse? The Kings took Clifford in the second round of the 2009 draft, with the 35th overall pick, meaning that most every team in the NHL had a chance to select Clifford early but passed before the Kings grabbed him.

At the time, given that Clifford didn’t rank among the top 100 in any of the pre-draft rankings, taking Clifford in the second round might have seemed like a reach. Now, after his first full season in the NHL, it certainly doesn’t seem that way any longer.

Clifford, still eligible for a final season of junior hockey, made the Kings’ roster out of training camp and totaled seven goals and seven assists in 76 games this season.

Beyond that, though, Clifford is a tireless worker and a good teammate who mixed the ability to score with the willingness to fight, hit and forecheck on every shift.

Kyle Clifford celebrates a goal with Wayne Simmonds.  Like Simmonds, Clifford made the roster as a rookie second-round pick and drew tremendous praise from the coaching staff.
All of this is why Kings coach Terry Murray isn’t the least bit surprised that Clifford is making an impact in the NHL at age 20, with a bright future seemingly ahead of him.

``I was starting to think that way from the first day he got here, from when I saw him in the off-ice workouts,’’ Murray said. ``This is a man. When you see him do all the stuff that (strength and conditioning coach) Tim Adams asks the players to prepare for the start of the training camp, he literally -- and it's not a slight against any other player -- he was literally blowing guys away. Men, who have been in the pro game for quite a few years. He has that kind of power and that kind of endurance.

``It's phenomenal, some of the test results that he put up. I had Scott Stevens as an 18-year-old, and I said this in our meetings, that this is the same thing for me. He's a young man in a man's body. You're always fearing that these young guys are not physically strong enough to play the game. That's always the hesitancy. They're skilled, they're high picks, they have that ability, but can they match up on that physical-strength side of it? There was never a doubt in my mind that he could do that.’’

A polite, soft-spoken kid from Ayr, Ontario, Clifford has graciously accepted praise this season but deflects as much of it as possible. Teammates and coaches alike have praised Clifford’s eagerness to learn and ask questions, on and off the ice.

``I came in and it's a whole different place here, a lot more intense,’’ Clifford said, ``so I just tried to learn as much as I could from the coaches and the veterans and pick it up as quick as possible so I could make myself a regular.

``Ryan Smyth has definitely helped me out a little bit, and guys like Matt Greene, he's a defenseman but he helps me with the off-ice stuff. We have a great leadership group and they have helped me along the way.’’

In Saturday’s Game 2 against San Jose, Clifford recorded the first multi-point game of his career, with a third-period goal and an assist, and Clifford has been an effective left winger on a line with center Brad Richardson and right winger Wayne Simmonds.

``The line is an interesting line,’’ Murray said. ``All three of them are able to get around the ice with speed, quickness. They really like to play with each other. You've got two guys there on the wings that are pretty physical, gritty, hard tough guys. Clifford, his growth over the year, I don't want to say that that's what we expected, but it's certainly what we needed.

``He has never let up, from the first day, with wanting to be a hockey player. He comes every day. He's early, he does the work the right way. He's one of the first guys to the rink every day, to the games. He's got a dream and he's living his dream and he's going to become a really good player, because this is who he wants to be. And we're seeing results.’’

Jarret Stoll fires a puck on the net in game 1 against San Jose.
Jarret Stoll, who served a one-game suspension in Game 2 for his hit on Ian White, skated in practice Monday morning with regular linemates Smyth and Justin Williams.

There was good news all around. According to published reports, White -- who missed Game 2 -- was scheduled to return to practice Monday and possibly play in Game 3 on Thursday night at STAPLES Center.

``I texted him, and we chatted a couple times,’’ Stoll said after Monday’s practice. ``He appreciated the text and reaching out to him. I wanted to make sure I did that, and let him know that I didn't mean to hurt him in any way.''

The Kings stayed with the line of Clifford, Richardson and Simmonds, as well as the line of Dustin Penner, Michal Handzus and Dustin Brown. Trevor Lewis returns to the fourth line to center Alexei Ponikarovksy and Kevin Westgarth.

Murray said he was impressed with the Game 2 effort of the fourth line, centered by Oscar Moller when Lewis moved up, and said it’s a bonus to be able to regularly play four lines in the playoffs.

``I think, at this time of year, four lines is very important, especially at the start of the series,’’ Murray said. ``I've always kind of gone that way, to get that look in there. Now when you have Kopitar out of the lineup, it's even more important that you get some important minutes from your fourth line. With Ponikarovsky and Moller and Westgarth, who in the two games, he has  done a tremendous job. Not only in his role, but just getting around the ice. He's skating, he's on the puck, he's doing the right things with the puck. So the fourth line has been performing the right way, buying into the structure, to the system, and that gives me a lot of confidence to put them back out more often.''

Drew Doughty celebrates a goal with Jack Johnson on Saturday.  The Kings' defensive corps was tremendous in game 2.
The Sharks recorded 34 shots on goal in Game 2, but for the most part, the Kings did a good job of limiting their number of quality scoring chances.

San Jose’s best scoring chance arguably came early, when the Sharks nearly scored on a backdoor tap-in, but Willie Mitchell was in position to deflect the puck away.

``The defensemen, especially guys like Scuderi and Mitchell and Matt Greene (played well),’’ Murray said. ``Matt Greene played a real heavy game, too, not only with his sticks in the passing lanes but he was heavy, hard. He had some big contacts. But those three players, they were really good in their coverage down low, the active stick. The range that both Mitchell and Scuderi have, with their mobility, is tremendous. They break up a lot of plays, discourage a lot of passes because of that. There was a great home-plate attitude. All those seven guys back there did a good job, meaning the goaltender too.’’

In addition, Drew Doughty played a tremendous two-way game for the Kings, as he tied a franchise playoff record with four points (two goals, two assists)

``He was a player that wanted the puck on his stick,’’ Murray said. ``He had the attitude that he could make a difference in the game. When he plays with that kind of approach to the game, he can make a difference in any given one of them, because of his abilities.’’

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