As much attention will deservedly be placed on the first round, teams will have plenty of information on as many prospects as they can. A fourth-or-later round pick may be a long shot and it could be years before we know whether there's even a future in pro hockey for the player. However, finding someone can contribute anything at all at the pro level that late in the draft is a success. As such, we will be profile players projected to go in later rounds.
What better way to start than to look at apparently the highest ranked prospect by Central Scouting Services from New Jersey for this year's draft. Unless I'm sorely mistaken, that's the 88th ranked North American skater, defenseman Connor Clifton.
Who is Connor Clifton?
Clifton was born in Matawan and played for the New Jersey Hitman before joining up with the United States National Team Developmental Program prior to the 2012-13 season. He has since plied his trade with the U-18 squad scrimmaging against college teams and USHL squads. He's also performed at the international level as he represented the United States at this year's World U-18 tournament, scoring his only goal in the final loss to Canada. Clifton will join Quinnipiac University next year.
According to Elite Prospects' profile, Clifton is not big. He stands at 5'11" and weighs 163 lbs. Needless to say, that's going to be an issue at the next level. He's also rather young as he was born on April 28, 1995. While he's not going to be the youngest player, it is worth noting he was 17 throughout this past season. He has plenty of room to grow as a player, regardless of his small stature.
A look at his basic stats shows that he's had a penchant for the rough stuff in spite of his size. He's racked up PIM wherever's he's played except at the U-18 tournament. You'll also notice he hasn't racked up a lot of points. It's clear that Clifton hasn't been an offensive defenseman. Or at least an unproductive one. I wouldn't discount his talents immediately, as he participated with the USNTDP for one and a half seasons now. Players don't get to join the USNTDP unless they have talent and the fact he performed even at the international level means he has something to offer.
Speaking of the international level, based on the USA's stats at the IIHF site for the World U-18 tournament, Clifton only averaged 12:24 per game. I surmise he was on a third pairing with Clint Lewis, who played similar minutes. With only five shots on net all tournament, it belies that he wasn't really offensive at that level either. Even in a limited role, he was a part of a silver-medal roster and got action against some of the best in his age class. Incidentally, you can hear his reaction to the loss to Canada in the video in this Hockey's Future article from Chapin Landvogt.
As an aside, Andy Johnson noted over at the Western College Hockey Blog that Clifton was selected in the 2013 OHL Priority Selection draft. Clifton was picked by Peterborough in the fourth round and the team's going to at least make their case to try and get Clifton to switch out of college to go to the OHL. That's going to be a tough sell considering that Connor and his brother Tim both committed to Quinnipiac back in December 2011. Once he is drafted, I'm sure the team that picked Connor will have something to say about that. It's something to keep an eye on, especially if you're a Quinnipiac supporter.
What Experts Have Said about Connor Clifton
As you may expect for a prospect projected to go later in the draft, there's not exactly a lot out there for Clifton. But there is enough to get a better idea on what he can do.
First off, Kirk Luedeke - a man who knows all about prospects - has written a short profile about Clifton at the New York Hockey Journal. It features a few quotes from the player, but I'm going to highlight his quick thoughts on the player.
Although U.S. NTDP defenseman Connor Clifton is not a household name among 2013 NHL Entry Draft prospects, the Garden State product is quietly earning accolades for his steady two-way play.
Having met the challenge of the Team USA schedule in the USHL, NCAA and various international tournaments, Clifton is showing himself to be a capable defender. Although he is still raw and tougher to project at this stage of his development, the 18-year-old is someone who could get the call in his home state in late June.
It's not much but Luedeke does note that because of his late April birthday, it's difficult to determine what his performances in 2012-13 project a player to become. While he took plenty of calls with the USNTDP, steady is a complement for a defender of any kind.
Given that Clifton joined the USNTDP and did take part in the World U-18 tournament, Chris Peters definitely knows who he is and what he's done. Peters runs the United States of Hockey site and he's had two takes on the player. Here's what Peters had to say about Clifton prior to the 2012-13 season for the U-18 team.
Connor Clifton (Quinnipiac University) — Another newbie for the U18 team, Clifton helps shore up an already sound blue line. He has a full year of junior hockey under his belt after spending last season with the Jersey Hitmen in the EJHL. Additionally Clifton has some solid international experience, joining the U17s last year for a tournament and participating in the Ivan Hlinka in August. Clifton possesses some two-way abilities with a good first pass and enough strength to be tough to play against in his own zone. He might not light the world on fire skill-wise, but he’s a pretty smart, steady player and that could help his chances with scouts.
Certainly a reasonable take. He's young, he doesn't have a lot of skill but does have some tools and some clue on what to do on defense. There's nothing wrong with "steady" as a defensive player. After the U.S. team settled for silver at the U-18s, Peters had the following assessment of Clifton after the tournament:
Connor Clifton — Undersized, but physically strong, Clifton showed off some solid offensive capabilities, but some questionable decisions throughout the tournament make him more challenging to project. Clifton has a terrific shot from the point and is able to get pucks to the net well. Sometimes he got lost in the offensive zone, however, leading to turnovers and odd-man rushes the other way. A little too go-for-broke at times, Clifton will need to improve his decision-making in the future. That said, the offensive capabilities and his desire to play a mean, physical game despite his size are attractive qualities. Unafraid to mix it up and play the body first, there’s plenty of upside in Clifton and that could lead to a team taking a later-round stab at that potential. U18WC Statline: 7 GP, 1-0–1, 2 PIM -3. Projected Draft Range: Fifth to Sixth Round.
I'm happy to see that Peters noted his strength. That would explain the PIM as well; a player who uses his body quite a bit is going to take penalties and it's good in a way that Clifton uses it in spite of his frame. The issues of decision making are disappointing to read. It's not like Clifton lit it up at the tournament or at other levels where we can say that he's taken a lot of rewarding risks. He hasn't been all that productive in terms of points. That said, it is just one short tournament. Given his limited time, he may have felt like he had to make an impact even when it wasn't the right time to do so. In other situations, perhaps he's not like that. He did keep his nose relatively clean with one penalty. Even if it is an issue, it is a correctable one and he'll have plenty of time to improve on that at the next level.
An Opinion of Sorts
In my reading of what's available about Clifton, I get the sense that he will benefit from as much developmental time as possible. Even if he wasn't small, defense is a position that takes time to work on from positioning to decision making to timing among other aspects. Since he wasn't an offensive player back as a midget and junior with the Hitmen and he's a "young" 18-year old player, he's on the path of becoming a defensive player - which is more than fine. That makes it more paramount to work on those aspects. I think he'll get that playing for four years with Quinnipiac than if he were to go to Peterborough.
Interestingly, Peters thinks he could go much later than the fourth round. That very well could be the case. Just because CSS ranks someone in the top 100 among North American skaters doesn't mean he'll go within the first four rounds. He's not big and likely will not become big, he hasn't done anything flashy, and even if he is physical and strong defenseman, that's something you can find later in drafts anyway. The New Jersey Devils only have four picks in this year's draft. With a later pick, I'm not so concerned about position since it's a giant question mark as to whether those prospects will ever turn into anybody at all. It's those picks where you can take a chance on someone and in time hope they improve enough to be a professional player. Sometimes you get lucky and find someone like Mark Fayne, but those are the exceptions and not the rule. Since the Devils only have a fourth and a sixth round pick, they would do well to be more judicious than usual. If they had a fifth or additional picks in those rounds, then I would say they could take a flyer on him. But they don't so the question of whether "Will he be a pro defenseman in a few years?" looms larger. The answer to that will guide whether he gets picked by New Jersey.
That being said, I do hope someone will take a chance on Connor Clifton. He's come out of a good USNTDP program, he's on track to go to a university coming off a strong season where he can help keep the program there, and he's played against the type you'd expect from a small defenseman.
Given that Clifton is a local prospect, I'm wondering whether you've seen him up close or even played against him. If you have, let us know in the comments. Additionally, have at it as to what you think of Clifton as a prospect based on what's available. Do you think he can become a pro-level defenseman in spite of his size? Are you surprised he's played as physically as he has been given his size? Will he get drafted, and when do you think it'll happen? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Connor Clifton in the comments. Thank you for reading.