Analysis: Maple Leafs bring back Kyle Clifford in trade with St. Louis

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The Maple Leafs have brought back 6’2, 214-pound left-winger Kyle Clifford in a trade with the St. Louis Blues, the club announced on Tuesday.

In case it is not obvious, the reason why the Leafs didn’t claim Clifford off of waivers when he was placed on the wire yesterday and traded for him today instead: The Leafs are now free to bring him back and forth between the AHL and NHL until he’s spent 30 days on the active NHL roster (or played 10 NHL games) because he has already cleared waivers.

This isn’t a shocker knowing the Leafs like Clifford’s character and experience (two-time Cup winner), he was one of Kyle Dubas’ first clients in Dubas’ time as a player agent, and we can confirm the Leafs had an appetite to bring him back in the 2020 offseason based on an interview quote from Brendan Shanahan shortly after Covid shut the league down in March 2020. The Leafs ended up going a different direction in the size/toughness/veteran savvy department with the likes of Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton signed on one-year contracts the following offseason while Clifford signed a two-year deal in St. Louis. Clifford is playing out the final year of that $1 million AAV contract this season.

In his limited time as a Leaf back in 2019-20 (21 games, 1g, 2a) after he was originally acquired as part of the Jack Campbell trade, Clifford spent a lot of time alongside the likes of Frederik Gauthier and Jason Spezza, which didn’t necessarily lend itself to creating the fourth-line identity that a player of Clifford’s hard-nosed attributes would thrive on. On a line opposite Wayne Simmonds, it might be a better fit if the Leafs decide to give it a look at some point. Clifford also never really got fully acclimated to his new team before Covid shut the league down and it picked up again months later in the bubble.

With just seven points in 50 games last season, Clifford is not going to add much speed or depth scoring to the lineup, but he’s not necessarily a totally useless player in the run of play; he’s 30 years old for another few months and he graded out well in play-driving metrics such as RAPM in LA (albeit on good possession teams) where could take a competent third-line shift if needed not that long ago. It’s been a few years since the height of his career in LA, though, and he was outscored 17-11 at 5v5 over his 52 regular-season games in St. Louis. He also has never been a regular penalty killer.

That said, the Leafs PK doesn’t really need extra help, and he was close to break-even in 5v5 expected Goals and shot attempt share, in addition to his eight points in 52 games over his Blues career. Despite the poor goal metrics and a really low on-ice PDO, it’s not like he was playing the whole game in his own end.

However much he actually suits up, Clifford’s presence is what the Leafs are really after — both the physical element on the ice and his experience of playing on winning teams in the league. What the Leafs didn’t add with their free-agent signings of Kampf, Kase, Ritchie, Bunting, and Semyonov (while losing Zach Bogosian): any significant playoff experience or Cup-winning pedigree of note. Clifford’s reuniting with Jake Muzzin in Toronto doubles the amount of Stanley Cup rings in the locker room.