The face of Kyle Clifford–often complete with a shiner, cuts, and swelling–cannot be found on any of the billboards around Los Angeles promoting the Kings’ young nucleus of players.
Even so, Clifford has quickly emerged as a fan favorite with his combination of energetic shifts, entertaining fights and, recently, explosive offense.
His linemate Wayne Simmonds, whose face adorns scores of the 14’-by-48’ posters, broke down Clifford’s game and its appeal to a single word.
“Fearless,” Simmonds said.
A player of intriguing contrasts, the rookie Clifford has become a leader by example for the Kings. He possesses sophisticated comprehension beyond his years and brute strength beyond imagination.
“With young players, it’s a matter of a developing the physical maturity and the emotional side of the player to be able to contribute. Clifford’s just one of those guys who has a lot of it in place already,” Kings Head Coach Terry Murray said. “He’s physical, he’s hard, he’s tough, he’s got a great presence and has a very good head on his shoulders to play the game the right way.”
Last Spring, Clifford packed his bags for Manchester, N.H. after his Barrie Colts were eliminated from the OHL Finals by the Windsor Spitfires. He was expected to put in a few playoff games with the Kings’ AHL affiliate, enjoy a stint among Los Angeles’ large assembly of young players in training camp and then likely return to Barrie for his final season of junior eligibility.
This April, the 20-year-old Clifford led the Los Angeles Kings in goals and points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Along with linemates Simmonds and Brad Richardson, Clifford provided the offensive boost the Kings needed to compete in their first-round series without their leading scorer and top defensive forward Anze Kopitar.
“It tells me he’s a clutch player,” Kings center Jarret Stoll said. “He’s gotten better as the season’s gone on, as the games have become more important.”
Clifford earned a reputation as a heavy, gritty left winger with the ability to intimidate between the whistles as well as with his gloves discarded. Though he scored a modest seven goals during the regular season, his complete game has developed rapidly as the stakes have escalated.
“In this big playoff race that is so tight this year, Cliffie is just doing a tremendous job, not only fighting and being physical but he’s scoring goals and making plays,” Stoll said.
Toughness has been a mainstay of Clifford’s game at every level, due in no small part to his uncommon strength and physical maturity. Murray has compared Clifford’s power, physique and strength testing results to those of Scott Stevens, whom Murray coached as an 18-year-old Washington Capital.
While Clifford has been a relatively quiet voice in the locker room, his teammates quickly took notice of his physical imposition.
“He’s a young kid, maybe in age, but he’s a man,” the Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown said. “From a physical standpoint he’s a big boy, he’s really strong. His fights speak for themselves but he’s starting to get a little more confidence coming in, driving to the net, and making plays off the rush.”
Clifford’s tilts have entertained fans and players alike as his unorthodox, two-fisted style has felled foes throughout the season. His immense upper-body strength has helped wrangle opponents early in fights frequently. While he may never be confused for boxing’s master defensive tactician Floyd Mayweather Jr., Clifford can throw heavy punches with either hand and rarely allows a scrap to dissolve into a hugging match.
“Cliffie just throws bombs,” Simmonds said. “I’ve never seen a 19 or 20-year-old with the kind of (guts) he has.”
The Ayr, Ontario native Clifford said that his fighting style goes back to his early days in the Canadian junior system.
“That’s the way I was taught. I don’t really have a lot of fear out there. If you let that seep into your fighting, it can really hurt you,” he said.
That attitude extended to all areas of his game this season. He drove hard to the net without fail, he never shied away from play in the corners and he welcomed confrontation repeatedly.
“You have a player who plays that hard, who goes to the areas that you have to go to play this time of the year,” Murray said during the playoffs. “No reluctance, no hesitation to make physical contact and pay the price in order to recover pucks. You get rewarded for that attitude.”
His first reward on the score sheet did not come until just before Christmas, when Clifford scored his first NHL goal against the Calgary Flames. Though he possesses respectable hands and a fair shot, Clifford’s office has been located in the most prime real estate on the ice, the front of the net.
“There’s nothing wrong with greasy goals,” Clifford said. “You’re really going to have to dig down so when you get your chance, just tap ‘er in. It might not be pretty but a goal’s a goal, right?”
Clifford’s late season was defined in large part by a pair of critical goals that were seeping with saturated fat.
With Kopitar’s broken ankle dangling a sword over their season and a torturous wait to clinch a playoff berth in danger of extending to game 82, Clifford scored his biggest goal of the regular season. Trailing the Phoenix Coyotes 1-2 with three minutes to play in regulation, he drove powerfully down the left side and smashed home Simmonds’s pass to knot the game at two. Clifford’s equalizer sent the Kings to the shootout, where they earned the two points they needed to secure a spot in the postseason.
“You got a glimpse of the future there. That was a great goal,” Murray said. “That was a young kid that’s showing you how to play a power game that is going to make him a real successful player on this team for a long time. That’s a lot of courage to go to the net as hard as he did.”
In the postseason, Clifford, fresh off an assist to Simmonds, scored on a Simmonds rebound to net the early game-winner that staved off elimination in game 5 against the San Jose Sharks.
Simmonds and Clifford have become good friends off the ice. They have cultivated a strong chemistry with the feisty pivot Richardson. Although the line was not cemented until late in the regular season, it remained together despite complete overhauls of the other three lines during the San Jose series. As the matchup wore on, it became increasingly common to see Clifford’s trio out against the potent combination of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi.
“I think they really like playing with each other,” Murray said. “They’re similar in their styles in that they have speed and tempo. They can make plays going at full speed and they have good awareness in the checking part of the game.”
Richardson, 26, Simmonds, 22, and Clifford, 20, are all part of a secondary core of younger players for a franchise burgeoning with talent in its twenties.
“I think the way he plays reflects their team,” Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan said. “Their organization and their staff has done a really good job in developing young players and Kyle happens to be one of them.
He’s a big, strong, young man that protects pucks extremely well. He can play physical and change the momentum in a game.”
Kings right winger Justin Williams remarked that while Clifford’s assimilation into the NHL has been smooth overall, his ability to fend off checkers has been an area of particularly sharp improvement.
"He’s done exactly what he’s needed to do and he’s done exactly what’s asked of him. He’s gotten better at a lot of parts of his game,” Williams said. “I thought earlier on in the season, he was pushed off the puck easily and he didn’t protect it. Now I found, the more I watch him, he’s getting that, he’s protecting the puck and he’s using his body to his advantage. He’s got a big frame, he’s a strong boy and I only see him getting better."
The Sharks’ Ryane Clowe–an opposing player who effectively combines fierce strength, legitimate grit, deep determination and offensive skill–was also impressed by the upstart Clifford’s approach as a rookie.
“He’s done what young guys should do and that’s try to gain respect throughout the league. He’s a stand-up guy,” Clowe said. “He’s a north/south player, he’s got good motor skills and he can get in on the fore-check. He likes to finish his hits, he plays the game the right way, he plays hard and he stands up for his teammates.”
To a man and at every point in the season, teammates and opposing players have noticed the indefatigable motor of Clifford. His skate blades have been seldom stilled and his fore-checking has remained relentless.
“He’s a big body, he moves his feet, he gets in on plays, he finishes checks and it’s tough to slow those kind of guys down,” the power forward and Dallas Stars captain Brendan Morrow said near midseason.
While many may be surprised by his success making the Kings roster, let alone his excellence in the playoffs, Clifford has not been. He said he planned to make the L.A. roster and help the team to the playoffs at the outset of the season. Without a hint of hesitancy or a modicum of doubt, he defined his goal at the beginning of the playoffs as being an impact player for his club in the postseason.
“It’s a big stage, you work your whole life for this and all I can think about is the Stanley Cup,” he said.
With his season now over, Clifford reflected upon his impressive campaign, which ended after six playoff games.
“I think I just enjoyed it every day and tried to learn as much as possible,” he said.
Coach Murray, an often reserved and always measured representative of his team, demonstrated a high level of pride and emotion in assessing Clifford’s season.
“He’s an amazing kid, you know, there are so many times that he has tried to set the tempo and change things around with going out and challenging guys fighting. Then he scored some big goals, too. I’m real happy for him.
He just grows every month. He’s going to become a good player in this league, a very good player.”