A return to game action for Connor Clifton appears to be in the not too distant future.
Fantastic. But whose roster spot is he going to take?
The second-year defenseman has been on injured reserve since suffering an upper-body injury Dec. 29 against the Buffalo Sabres. The latest update from Bruce Cassidy was that Clifton won’t play Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, which means he also might not get in Sunday against the New York Rangers. But seeing as he’s returned to being a full participant in practice, a return might not be far off from that.
Lately, it’s been John Moore and Jeremy Lauzon skating with Matt Grzelcyk on the third defensive pairing. That’ll be the spot Clifton goes in at.
When Clifton is brought off IR, the most likely scenario is Lauzon goes down. He’s waivers exempt, and would benefit from playing in the AHL instead of just sitting out as a healthy scratch in the NHL.
It’s fair to ask if Lauzon deserves to stay up until he’s outplayed for his spot, something Moore has yet to do. But since the drop-off from Lauzon to Moore is negligible, the Bruins wouldn’t be taking any sort of big steps back by just rolling with the veteran and stashing Lauzon back in Providence.
So let’s assume Lauzon goes down. Clifton certainly would get a shot to earn his spot back full time, but the more likely scenario is he and Moore split duties for the foreseeable future, until one truly outplays the other. That’s basically what happened from the time Moore returned in December until Clifton got hurt later in the month.
It did seem during the fall like Clifton was beginning to fall out of favor a bit. When his aggressive style of play turns reckless, it can leave a defensive partner high and dry. Clifton deserves the chance to prove himself, but he hasn’t earned the right to consider his place on the gameday roster a guarantee.
Now, getting back in the lineup has been made easier for Clifton because of Moore’s subpar play. Moore effectively has become a sixth/seventh defenseman, and Cassidy candidly addressed Moore’s role before last Saturday’s win over the Arizona Coyotes — Moore’s first game back in the lineup after getting healthy scratched for five straight games.
“Well he’s handled it, like in terms of a teammate, excellent,” Cassidy said. “He’s a great kid, he works hard, there’s no maintenance in that part of it. There’s discussions on why — he’s like every other player, ‘if I’m not playing, why? What do I need to do?’
“As for how he’s handled the year, his play has been, I’d say sometimes inconsistent, but what’s worked against him is him and Grizz have not had the best chemistry on the ice. And that’s kind of where he got slotted into, because the other pairs are basically repeated from last year, so that’s where the challenge has been for John. Maybe we have to change his game a little bit to play with Grizz and Grizz the same to be an effective pair. Grizz seems to play better with a guy that can end plays and put out a lot of fires quickly so we’re not spending a lot of time in our end.
“So that’s the message we’ve tried to get to John, be a little more of that, and Grizz as well. But it is what it is when you’re 5-9 and 170, sometimes you get into those battles. He’s got his strengths and weaknesses like every other player. So that’s where Johnny we’ve tried to get him to grab onto that type of play so that he can keep his spot in the lineup.”
Of course, if the Bruins go out and trade for a defenseman ahead of the Feb. 24 deadline, then maybe Moore and Clifton just become injury contingencies. There’s also the very off chance Lauzon stays up and the Bruins send a forward down, but again that seems highly unlikely.
So in the interim, and if Don Sweeney elects not to add to the blue line, one has to think Lauzon goes down and Clifton/Moore essentially platoon with Grzelcyk, barring injuries.