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Sabres Grades: Connor Clifton

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Connor Clifton Buffalo Sabres season grades

Number 18 on the Sabres Grades countdown is a new addition to the blueline, Connor Clifton. Buffalo needed to improve the right side of its defense and decided to take fliers on veterans Clifton and Erik Johnson. The committee approach backfired, with both defensemen showing no more than third-pairing performance.

The Grading System

If you missed the introduction to the grading system, I’ve assigned letter grades to each Buffalo player based on game performance. The letter grades are assigned based on statistical computation, taking into account the following factors:

  • Production
  • Quality of offense
  • Quality of defense
  • Volume of offense
  • Volume of defense
  • Powerplay performance
  • Penalty kill performance
  • Penalties drawn and taken
  • Role
  • Minutes played

It’s important to understand that these player performance grades are solely based on the algorithm created, with the one exception being a game shortened by injury. A player who missed significant ice time due to injury was not docked for fewer minutes played. This eliminates the confusion of how well a player performs when available.

I went back and graded all 82 games this season for every player. This way, we fully understand the progression of each player’s performance on a game-by-game basis.

Also, a big thanks to Evolving-Hockey for the individual game data. They’re among the best in the business.

Here’s the grading scale in table form, for reference:

GradeLower LimitUpper Limit
A+92%100%
A85%92%
A-77%85%
B+69%77%
B62%69%
B-54%62%
C+46%54%
C38%46%
C-31%38%
D+23%31%
D15%23%
D-8%15%
F0%8%

Previous Sabres Grades: Lukas Rousek

Connor Clifton

Season Grade: C-

Average: C-

Consistency: B-

Boom %: F [0%]

Bust %: C- [17.11%]

The Sabres found some much-needed snarl in Clifton, whose physicality brought a different element to the backend. Except for Mattias Samuelsson and an agitated Rasmus Dahlin, hitting was not a big focus of Buffalo’s defending. Clifton’s ability to step up and make big open-ice hits provided a way of dragging the Sabres into the fight.

Connor Clifton Buffalo Sabres 2023-2024 season grades

It took a while for Clifton to settle in, as he bounced from being on the top pair with Dahlin to finding a role on the bottom pair in a more limited role. Once the coaching staff could corral his risk-taking and establish a fit, he played some of his best hockey for Buffalo.

The uptick in his play throughout the season suggests that Clifton is best suited as a staple on Buffalo’s third pair. As things currently stand, that’s with either of his most common defense partners last season – Jacob Bryson or Ryan Johnson.

Grade Distribution

Connor Clifton Buffalo Sabres 2023-2024 grade distribution

We’re getting to the point in the countdown where you’ll see much more B-range grades. Most nights, Clifton was an average NHL player for the Sabres, which is respectable to have on the bottom pair. His ability to provide flash plays is an asset, sometimes leading to flash games.

Consistency is great because coaches want to know what they get out of players each night. What’s preferred is a consistent floor with the ability to do great things to help teams win games. In Clifton’s case, big hits, timely offensive-zone pinches, and a willingness to do whatever is needed are encouraging traits the veteran showed in his first season on the Sabres.

Connor Clifton Buffalo Sabres 2023-2024 1st half grade distributionConnor Clifton Buffalo Sabres 2023-2024 2nd half grade distribution

If there’s any clear notion of Clifton’s performance by cutting the season in half, he consistently settled into the average-to-below-average range in the second half. He played limited minutes, which caps a player’s ceiling in the Sabres Grades model.

Still, there were a handful of splash games that were encouraging. It was better than the high degree of variance we saw from Clifton in the first half, which had fans questioning why the Sabres acquired him in the first place.

Player Comps

Connor Clifton Buffalo Sabres player comps

There’s undoubtedly a spot in the NHL for a player like Clifton. The stay-at-home, punishing defenseman has been a defined piece of the league since its existence. Andreas Englund and Vincent Desharnais received rave reviews for what they provided for their contending teams during the regular season. Former Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe was a pivotal player on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ blueline this past season, logging heavy minutes.

The list of Clifton comps continues with McCabe’s defense partner Simon Benoit, Erik Cernak, Niko Mikkola, and former Sabres Brayden McNabb and Dmitry Kulikov. All five of those defensemen were on playoff teams, with four of the five playing second-pair minutes at even-strength.

For as low as Clifton placed in the countdown, his playing style and similar players across the league hint at room for improved play and a bigger impact next season.

2024-2025 Early Outlook

After the addition of Bowen Byram at the trade deadline, the Sabres’ top three defensemen are set next to Dahlin and Owen Power. Samuelsson returning from injury makes four, with all four blueliners being left-handed shots.

As for right-handers, Clifton remains under contract and will be on the roster. Henri Jokiharju’s status is up in the air as a restricted free agent but remains under team control.

Then there’s more lefty depth with Bryson and Ryan Johnson, leaving the blueprint for pairings uncertain.

Potential Pairings

Given there are no additions to the group, there are a few variations of how things could look. First, if the Sabres reunite Dahlin and Samuelsson on the top pair, it could look like this:

Mattias Samuelsson – Rasmus Dahlin

Owen Power – Bowen Byram

Ryan Johnson/Jacob Bryson – Henri Jokiharju/Connor Clifton

You could swap Byram with Samuelsson there since Byram and Dahlin played very well together. This keeps a standard lefty-righty combination on the third pair, with Ryan Johnson expected to take another step forward next season.

Of course, Jokiharju and Clifton could team up to become the third pair, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense to have two lefty-lefty pairs just to have a righty-righty pair left over. For a more natural distribution, the defense could look like this:

Bowen Byram – Rasmus Dahlin

Owen Power – Henri Jokiharju

Mattias Samuelsson – Connor Clifton

Extras: Ryan Johnson, Jacob Bryson

Using Samuelsson on the third pair seems more balanced with lefty-righty distribution on the second and third pairs. The downside is that neither Samuelsson nor Clifton are very proficient puck distributors, so they may hinder the offense when on the ice together.

How new head coach Lindy Ruff and the Sabres coaching staff decide to deploy the defense will affect how much daylight Clifton sees in next season’s lineup. Jokiharju could be in his way, so how Buffalo handles that situation could also impact Clifton’s future. Either way, Clifton will be a part of the group and ready to contribute to the bottom pair.

 

Previous Sabres Season Grades

Prospects and Depth

Casey Mittelstadt, Kyle Okposo, and Erik Johnson

24. Jacob Bryson

23. Tyson Jost

22. Victor Olofsson

21. Eric Robinson

20. Ryan Johnson

19. Lukas Rousek

18. Connor Clifton

17. Zemgus Girgensons

16. Bowen Byram

15. Peyton Krebs

14. TBD

13. TBD

12. TBD

11. TBD

10. TBD

9. TBD

8. TBD

7. TBD

6. TBD

5. TBD

4. TBD

3. TBD

2. TBD

1. TBD