Although the Toronto Maple Leafs are on a hot streak right now, team management upped the stakes for the roster Tuesday when GM Kyle Dubas traded future considerations to the St. Louis Blues in return for veteran winger Kyle Clifford. The trade sends a message to current Leafs that there will be more competition for jobs, and that will pressure everyone in the lineup to ratchet up their games.
This is Clifford’s second stint as a Leaf – he played 16 regular-season games for Toronto in 2019-20, posting two assists and three points – so you know Dubas and his management team like the player and what he brings to the table. It’s not about point production from Clifford; it’s about the rugged edge he offers. It’s about making defensemen think twice about going into the corner for a puck Clifford is chasing.
Clifford’s arrival also sends a message that should resonate through Toronto’s American League affiliate Marlies team, too; players like Marlies forward Kurtis Gabriel were acquired in the summer to make the Leafs a tougher team to play against, and the Clifford trade makes it clear Dubas doesn’t think his squad before today is tough enough.
Clifford is now 30 years old, and has a contract that pays him $1 million. That also made him palatable to Dubas & Co. If things work out, great. If they don’t, they can cut Clifford loose and bury his contract in the AHL. It’s a low-risk, decent-reward for the Leafs, and it’s the kind of depth deal Dubas may make more of as the NHL trade deadline approaches.
In his career, Clifford never has amassed more than the 11 goals and 21 regular-season points he garnered for the Los Angeles Kings in 2018-19, and he’s never had more than six goals and seven points in a single year of playoff games. He’s also never played a full 82-game season. But in the playoff season where he put up career highs in assists and points, Clifford was on a Kings team that would win a Cup in two of three seasons. He was part of that team, and now has two Cup rings to show for it.
That experience makes him attractive to Dubas, who is pushing all his chips in this season to make the Leafs a team that will win playoff games. Dubas isn’t going to entrust Toronto’s young players (outside of their key four forwards) with huge responsibilities, and Clifford can come in and earn a spot right away.
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It feels like Dubas still isn’t finished remodelling the Leafs’ roster, although major moves likely won’t happen until Toronto goes through another post-season test – one they’ve failed miserably at for years now. It’s more probable Dubas makes more depth trades, knowing full well how injuries can waylay the best-laid plans of ice and men. The Marlies also now know it will be more difficult to be called up to the NHL team, and frankly, in the bigger picture, that’s a positive thing. They should be motivated to work harder, and the ones who aren’t motivated to work harder will peel off the Leafs’ payroll one way or another.
It’s been said here before that Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe likes to have options when deciding on a group of players in any given night. With Clifford’s arrival, Keefe now has one more option. He’s not going to blow away anyone with goals galore, but Clifford has a resume and a cap hit that is worth the gamble Dubas is making.
It’s not a huge gamble, but you never know – Clifford is the kind of guy who may be able to step into a playoff series and carve out time and space for himself and his linemates, and he may even score a timely goal or two.
If it doesn’t happen, no harm, no foul. And if it does happen, Dubas looks quite smart for picking him up. That’s why this trade was made. Time will tell if it will be regarded as a savvy deal for the Leafs.