Expectations: Kyle Clifford
We sit down for a chat with Kyle at his home about what it means to play the way he does, day in and day out, knowing he provides something that the stats-trackers and analysts are unable to garner a data-driven POV on.
Growing up in Ontario, who were some of your heroes and did you try to emulate anyone whether it be the NHL or just in your hometown? There had to be plenty of amazing players all around that area.
As far as guys from the NHL? We didn’t have a whole lot come from my hometown but we had Jay Wells who actually played for the Kings, and he lived in Paris which was a town over. He brought the cup to Ayr in ’94, I was pretty young then but looking back it was pretty special. You’d his picture up in the local ice rink every time we’d go to practice, we’d see it and it was something we though about, maybe we’d be like that one day. But there were other players from Canada that I’d try to model my game after. I’d say it was a combination of Mark Messier, Todd Bertuzzi, Chris Neil and Mike Fisher. What drew me to them was that they were all hard-nosed rugged players that’d do anything for their team. They were fight to the last breath type players their whole careers. It was always special watching them, watching that type of guy sort of sucked me into the game and I eventually found my role as a player because of that, just to have those intangibles that you can’t help but notice every night.
You came out of Barrie in the OHL with a 57-point season; you could definitely score. From there you helped support the Monarchs for 7 games in their deep 2010 playoff run and then went straight into the NHL. Tell me about you your main objective was by the time you arrived on the Kings roster.
I knew as my junior career developed I was evolving into more of a power forward/scorer type role. So my first year in Junior I had one goal in 57 games, my second year I had 16 goals in 60 games or something and my third year I had almost 30 goals. I just tried to develop my game as I went and then I was fortunate enough to go play in Manchester right after our Barrie season and of course that really helped me become a complete player that was able to take the jump to make the NHL the next year. I came in as a role player and that just kind of stuck. I’ll always be trying to develop my game but I also know what I meant to a team, those years in Junior and that spring in Manchester, they were huge for me being able to become what I am. Every guy’s got their story of where they come and how they made it, I think it’s really important to focus during those years and build your game and to know where you stand when you get the call. Everybody wants to come in and be a 40 goal scorer… To this day of course I’m going to push to be the best player I can be, but I know what my role is and I know what I need to do to help our team win, for me I think that’s the most important thing. Everybody on our team has a role and we’re all there there for a reason. Right now everyone in our group right knows what they need to bring but there’s also a lot of young guys that are still developing and being around them makes everyone want to get better as individuals because of course that’ll just make our team better as a whole.
Were you specifically directed to play any sort of style by coaches and/or teammates or did you just take your spot as Kyle Clifford? A successful jump from Junior to the NHL has to be a pretty intimidating job to execute, even for a 2nd rounder. You seemed to handle it pretty well right away.
My first year I was just trying to do whatever I could to play just like any kid coming up when they’re 18-19. It’s hard to play in the NHL and not everyone is fortunate enough to make the jump from junior or college. I knew if I wanted to stay I was going to have to play that hard-nosed role-player role, and I did that. We had a great development staff in Michael Colonel, Nelson Emerson a long list of others and then the GM Dean Lombardi that really wanted to develop me as a young strong role player, what I am now basically. I wouldn’t say I was pushed in one direction but at the same time I’m a big bodied player that plays with an edge so I think the role kind of finds you.
With all do respect, it’s clear you’re not expected to put up a huge amount of points yourself, what was it like for you to step into being the player you became at the pro level?
Well it’s the NHL. If you look at most of our stats in Junior, well if you look at everyone’s stats in Junior that make it to this league, everyone had outstanding numbers. We could all put 30-40 goals there so when you get to the NHL you can try to fight to be that player but there’s only going to be a few of those on the team, you need all the other pieces to be successful. You need guys like Trevor Lewis, you need your Alec Martinez’s and you need those character guys that are going to provide the depth and the hard minutes and focus on the other side of getting points. That’s where I feel I’m going to help the team the best so that’s what I’ve always done.
You play a much needed role, even as “excessive roughness” is moving away from the game. You’ve always shown impressive speed and have an innate ability to keep pucks in the offensive zone; something that’s imperative right now due to just how fast almost everybody else in the league is. How have you had to change your nightly duties in the past few seasons?
I got a little lucky on the timing. When I first started coming in that’s when the real transition was happening, the fighter was no longer a thing. There’s not one “Fighter” in the NHL anymore. There’s no more Brian McGratten’s, no more of these guys that play their 3 minutes and then you know… There’s guys that still fight but now they can all play and they play hard but the truth is the game is getting faster. You look at those guys right now that can be labeled as a tough guy but they’re fast, hard hitting players that can run people over and be effective in that way, they also put up goals and still provide something for their team other than just being tough.You hear it all the time in the media that there’s no more fighting in hockey and yea the fighters are gone but there’s still fighting in hockey in the sense that there’s still hitting and there’s still hard-drives to the net, pushing guys off the puck, getting into aggressive forechecking. The average fan doesn’t really see that but the above-average fan does, and of course all the players do and it’s huge part of the game. So while we’re all trying to play faster there’s still the fact that when you go in and play, for example Winnipeg, you know you’re in for a rough night. And look at their year, they went to the conference final. They are a big hard team to play against and so that’s where that toughness in the game is still always gonna be around no matter what. There’s probably 250 other D-Man that I’d rather try and drive wide than Dustin Byfuglien… But that’s what you have to do along with every other team that wants to beat them.
For sure. On that subject PIMs have been trending down across the league but not necessarily fallen off a cliff, especially during the playoffs. In your opinion, is this due any sort of shock to the system from coaching, pressure from the league, or are teams just naturally adjusting?
Today, a lot of the boneheads are out of the gam. You can’t put your team down a man and expect to play. It’s such an advantage to have an extra man, special teams are huge in this day and age. If you give the other team 2-3 extra power plays on any given night, they’re gonna score. It’s hard enough to score in this league 5 on 5 so if you got a disciplined team the chances are you’re probably going to do an lot better than a team that’s undisciplined. The coaches are definitely pushing it because it always comes down to winning and losing and that’s a really big factor in that, taking dumb penalties.
During the last decade the Kings have had a well-known brand of blue-collar hockey, and no one sees that completely changing anytime soon, but knowing the way the league has been shifting are you seeing an opportunity to utilize your speed and tenacity differently then you would 5 years ago?
It’s funny when one team wins it all, everyone is going to copy them. Then the next hot team plays a different style and when they win it, then ok now we’ve gonna be like them. When Pittsburgh won it, now we’re going to be fast, when LA was winning everyone was trying to be a big hard hitting team. It’s all trends and you’re always adapting and who wouldn’t want to be faster in general? So now that’s what we’re working on in the summertime, getting better at using speed and skill. If the best guys, if Sidney Crosby is going to try and be faster than I’m going to try to be faster along with everyone else. Look at Connor McDavid, it’s unbelievable what he can do at that high level of speed so yea everyone is trying to go that way. We’re still hard-hitting but we’re all adjusting.
Referring back to the last question, how have offseason workouts been the last couple seasons compared to when you started with the team?
We actually have a really good strength and conditioning coach right now who’s been there for about 4 years, we brought on Trent Frey as well as an assistant and they do a tremendous job at adapting workouts. They’re developing our speed, strength and power. Those are the the three big areas we’ve kind of always focused on but now we’re changing and doing different work outs, less strenuous but higher quality. We’re never going to the gym and ripping weights around for 2 hours like we used to. We’re going in and getting a real quality hour, hour and half in the gym and we’re getting more out of it. Matt Price is the guy who measures a lot of categories and has got us to adjust with different movements for power and speed, it can be a little overwhelming because he has so much going on but the amount of information he tracks really helps you see in the last four years that the guys numbers have just been improving when training between seasons.
Is there anyone else in the league you’ve noticed evolving the same way as yourself?
Yea it’s a league-wide trend, like I said if Crosby is getting faster, then everyone is going to try as well. Doughty is getting faster, Kopitar, and us on the bottom six. I’d say about 8 years ago there was more of that heaviness and meathead type guy down there but now you’re seeing it’s more guys who can think the game and hit and check in a better way and also score goals. I mentioned him before but for me Trevor Lewis is like the current photo-typical bottom-six guy that can do everything and still provide a heavy game, he’s a good example.
Lastly, do you think anything has changed with your game now that you have a new audience, particularly the three new guys at home?
Ha, yes, I think so but it’s still part of my job. If things get a little heavy during a game and punches are thrown or whatever and the kids see I’ll definitely have to sit them down and explain to them that is something dad has to do sometimes on the ice and that’s where it stays. Having three boys, especially boys, they think because dad does it they can do it… So there’s been some brotherly fists thrown around, body checks, some slashing going on, they can be pretty ruthless for being so young. It’s also my job to be parent so I’m definitely aware of that.