(Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

By: Tommy Bennett | Follow Me On Twitter @TJBennettt37

There are numerous decisions that Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney needs to make as the 2023 off-season continues. The National Hockey League Entry Draft is over a week away, and free agency to start the month of July, but the organization has a list of restricted free agents and unrestricted free agents to deal with. Sweeney and Assistant Evan Gold have their work cut out for them to be salary cap compliant by the start of the upcoming 2023-34 NHL season.

Brandon Bussi just secured a one-year contract extension. However, that is minor, and there are significant pieces to secure. Jeremy Swayman remains at the top of the priority list. In addition, the team will explore options to keep Tyler Bertuzzi. One decision that lies ahead involves Connor Clifton. Does Sweeney let him stay or walk? 

Player Overview

Connor Clifton is not the most significant player on the ice. However, he plays like it. The Matawan, New Jersey native stands tall at 5’11 and weighs 190 pounds. Clifton is not the flashiest offensively, but he plays a physical brand of hockey and is not afraid to hit anything. He embodies the physicality that is beloved by many when it comes to Bruins hockey. 

Initially a fifth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, he made his way to Boston, where he would touchdown for his hockey career. Over time he would carve out a role for himself as a third-pair defenseman. Through hard work, he solidified his position and became a mainstay on the back end. However, he saw his game taken to new heights under head coach Jim Montgomery. 

The Growth Of Clifton

Life under Bruce Cassidy was hard for some of the young guys. If you made a mistake, he let you know it, and you felt it. And like some of those younger guys, they found new life under Montgomery. Especially Connor Clifton. He primarily plays the same third-pair role on the right side, so he had a career season for himself. 

Clifton enjoyed a career-high in production. While maintaining his physical presence (208 hits), he showed what he could do offensively. Clifton finished the season with five goals, 18 assists, and 23 points. In this regard, he had progressively improved every season. Clifton went on to score at his expected rate (5.4) and had a way of generating chances. From an individual standpoint, his individual Corsi For (iCF) of 172 placed him fifth on the team. However, his individual Fenwick (iFF) of 137 was fourth. His ability to get shots through without being blocked was remarkable to watch. 

Defensively Clifton has some awkward moments at times. He was willing to sacrifice the body (120 blocked shots) and was credited with 20 takeaways. With him on the ice, expected goals were in the other team’s favor (66.52-58.88), as well as scoring chances. His 47 giveaways were the third most of any defensemen on the team. Clifton showed a lot of promise in his game, but there were times when he got exposed. As a pair with Derek Forbort, they were the third worst in expected goals against. The duo did not do the best job of suppressing the opposition’s chances. In addition, the pair allowed the most goals of all Bruins defenders.

Stay Or Walk? 

As mentioned above, Connor Clifton showed growth and promise in his game. Like other younger guys like Jake DeBrusk and Trent Frederic, Clifton thrived under head coach Jim Montgomery. But with the salary cap being tight, keeping Clifton around may not be feasible. Not to mention, Jakub Zboril is in line for extra ice time, and Mason Lohrei is waiting in the pipeline. The Boston Bruins blueline has become crowded in a sense, and Clifton has fallen out of place. 

Buying out Mike Reilly sounds likely. For cap purposes, Sweeney can also part ways with a player such as Matt Grzelcyk and Derek Forbort. The core of the blueline remains intact with Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, and Brandon Carlo. Unless Sweeney can convince Clifton to take a discount deal, signing elsewhere is likely for the young defensemen.