Though there is a relaxed humility in the way he presents himself to his teammates, his coaches and to reporters, there are still flashes of the gung-ho exuberance of youth present in the now-22-year-old selected in the second round of the 2009 NHL Draft.
Director of Amateur Scouting Michael Futa recalled that while scouting Clifford during his draft year, the burly forward would practically rip his hand off at the wrist with his handshake, likening it to “a clamp.”
It fits with Clifford’s recollection. Though he described the process of continually meeting with Los Angeles and other NHL organizations as “intimidating,” he still etched out a comfort level with the team’s scouting department, an engagement that distanced itself from consultations with scouts and representatives of other NHL teams.
“The first time I walked out of that meeting, I walked out feeling pretty good, and I felt like that their organization was going to be a championship organization, and I remember saying that to my dad…that if there was one team I could be a part of, it would be the Kings,” Clifford said.
Clifford was a 19-year-old when he attended his second training camp in 2010, and he grasped a spot on the team with the same ferocity with which he previously shook Futa’s hand.
“I just wanted to come in and play my game and show them what I thought I could do, and how I thought I could contribute,” Clifford said. “I know there was a lot of fighting involved, and that was a main focus. But I felt like I got a lot of confidence as a hockey player in those camps, too, and I showed them that I can play at that level, at that time, and obviously the toughness took care of itself.”
His pugnacity was noted by Kings fans. He fought in rookie games. He fought Paul Bissonnette of the Phoenix Coyotes in the pre-season. A HockeyFights.com search details his dance partners from the 2010-11 regular season, and includes a list of major league enforcers. George Parros. Shawn Thornton. Zenon Konopka. Brad Staubitz.
The methods used by Clifford to wrest control of a roster spot in 2010 may seem familiar as 2011 third round pick Andy Andreoff vies for a spot on Los Angeles’ 23-man roster.
There are certainly differences between the two players’ attempts to make the team. Clifford would have returned to the OHL’s Barrie Colts had he not made the Kings in 2010, while Andreoff already has a year of professional experience at AHL-Manchester.
“I think the first body of work that they had on Cliffy was the experience he had in Manchester at the end of the previous season,” said assistant coach John Stevens, who was hired by the Kings in the summer of 2010, two months after Clifford’s seven-game professional debut during the Monarchs’ playoff run.
“I guess he went in there and went right in and played the same way in the American League that he did in junior. He was just a real power forward, hardnosed – all the things you see in him now, and I think that’s something you look for in a young player, just his ability to go up to the next level and continue to be the same player.”
Andreoff’s attempt to earn a role with the Kings in 2013 is sustained by a full year of nurturing within the organization. In 2012-13, his first full professional season, he recorded 13 goals and 26 points with 111 penalty minutes over 69 AHL games.
“He’s been going through the development process and trying to get better in all the areas they want him to get better at, and clearly he has. He’s a lot closer to being an NHL player now than he was when he got here, and that’s what you want to see,” Stevens said.
“Is he close enough? We’re going to find out. That’s what training camp’s for.”
Their skill sets aren’t identical. But both players have shown versatility up front and are listed as left wings, with Clifford showing ability last season to slot up and down the left side of the lineup based on the team’s needs, and Andreoff being just as comfortable at center as he is at left wing.
“I was playing center and left wing last year, so I’m kind of used to it now, and I’m enjoying it,” he said.
There’s a heaviness inherent in their games and the respect it commands amongst their opponents. Similar to Clifford three years prior, Andreoff found a willing opponent in Monday’s rookie game when he squared off against Anaheim’s Teigan Zahn in Los Angeles’ 3-2 win. He also scored on a crisp, glove-high wrist shot in Saturday’s rookie game at the Honda Center, electing to shoot from a sharp angle while on an odd-man rush. The goal evened the score at one and opened a scoring barrage in an eventual 6-1 win by the Kings rookies.
“He has a real edge to his play, but he’s got a skill set that goes along with it,” Stevens said.
Despite some subtle differences, both Clifford and Andreoff are power forwards with north-south games that fit in well with the team’s style of play. The Kings are one of the league’s larger teams, and though the two players have decent size – Clifford is 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds, while Andreoff is 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds – they play bigger than the measurements attached to their names.
Of course, Clifford’s body of work includes three NHL seasons and a Stanley Cup, while Andreoff is yet to make his NHL debut. For that to happen, he’s going to have to exhibit his fearlessness and rugged qualities through training camp and a seven-game preseason schedule. There will also be aspects of his game he’ll need to continue to refine as he’s evaluated for an eventual roster spot.
Manchester coach Mark Morris referenced Andreoff’s awareness in his own end and game tempo as a pair of elements that could be improved through continued development.
“I think his recognition of defensive scenarios or his ability to jump into a hole to have more urgency – and those are all natural things for young guys to learn,” Morris said. “You’ve just got to do things quicker. You’ve got to do it with more conviction. All the pieces are there. He’s just got to fill in the gaps with quickness, and I think time will make him the player that everybody expects him to be.”
His base of preparation and willingness to make himself better has impressed Stevens.
“He’s put the work in, and he’s had a great summer of training, and he’s coming in looking a lot more like a pro than he did when he came out of junior, and that’s exactly what you want.”