Zack Kassian and Kyle Clifford: On powerforwards, odd connections and hot starts


Two power forwards, both alike in dignity, near fair Venice Beach where we lay our scene.

As the Vancouver Canucks prepare to face the Los Angeles Kings on national television Monday evening, both teams have good reason to be pleased with the early season performances of their respective twenty-two year old powerforwards.

For the Canucks it’s Zack Kassian, who despite a quiet outing on Sunday night against the San Jose Sharks has been something of a revelation in the early going for Vancouver. He’s scored three goals through five games – several of them beauties – and has provided Vancouver’s hockey club with a rugged forward presence the franchise has lacked for so long.

For the Los Angeles Kings, it’s left-winger Kyle Clifford, a 6,2 208 pound enforcer who plays bigger than his size. A staple on Los Angeles’ fourth line for several years now, Clifford is flashing his hitherto untapped skill level in the early going this season, and has racked up six points in Los Angeles’ first four games while skating on Los Angeles’ second-line alongside Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. 

Their paths to get to the NHL level were divergent – Kyle Clifford was something of a surprise second round pick and a pure enforcer for the majority of his OHL career, while Zack Kassian was a highly touted first rounder who everyone has long agreed possessed first line upside and skill to burn – but they’re linked together by their respective involvement in one of the most controversial trades in Canucks history. You see both players were targeted by Mike Gillis as an acceptable return for a popular one-way centreman named Cody Hodgson.

Read on past the jump for more.

In case you’re in need of a refresher, here’s the fascinating tidbit that was reported by Elliotte Friedman in a 30 Thoughts column from late April of 2012:

In the March 6 edition of this blog, I mentioned that Vancouver "targeted" a few players in a possible Cody Hodgson deal. Zack Kassian was one, obviously. I also noted Brandon Sutter, who the Carolina Hurricanes love, and made an educated guess at John Carlson (which appears to be true). Canucks GM Mike Gillis said Tuesday there were six players. According to a couple of sources, sounds like the fourth was Erik Gudbranson and the fifth Kyle Clifford. No. 6? Not sure.

When I first read that way back in April, I thought that targeting Kyle Clifford as a possible "fair return" for Cody Hodgson was a spot of insanity (and I’m still glad Vancouver ended up with Zack Kassian, frankly). But with Clifford looking not at all out of place in Dustin Penner’s usual spot in L.A’s top-six, perhaps Mike Gillis and the Canucks are just better at scouting professional hockey players than I am (as well they should be). 

Now, obviously calling Kyle Clifford a legitimate top-six forward just because he’s put up a whole whack of points in four games is a bit of a stretch, and indeed his peripheral metrics suggest that his recent run of offensive success is rather completely unsustainable. For example, Los Angeles is currently shooting well over 27% with Kyle Clifford on the ice and have yet to allow a goal against, so if you’re paying attention you know that Clifford is sporting a stratospheric 127 PDO.

But unsustainable percentages aside, the Kings are doing well to drive play with Clifford on the ice and he’s posting some very auspicious possession numbers (albeit in a very, very limited sample) in the top-six. For what it’s worth, even Kyle Clifford doesn’t expect to take home the bacon with his offensive talents alone and spoke at length with Helene Elliot this week about his desire to take on more defensive responsibility with the Kings.

For Zack Kassian, his hot-start has benefitted less from the bounces, though it’s tougher to evaluate his possession numbers because he’s being deployed almost exclusively in the offensive zone alongside the Sedin twins. I’d argue that Kassian possesses a much higher ceiling as an offensive player than Kyle Clifford does, though at this point you’d have to be ecstatic to have either young forward (and their cap-friendly entry-level deal) on your club. 

Vancouver’s evaluation of Kyle Clifford’s potential was and is telling. Much in the same way that Zack Kassian’s hot start has helped Canucks fans calm down about the Hodgson trade, Clifford’s performance in an enlargened role with the Kings to begin this season somewhat vindicates the judgement of Vancouver’s front office regarding his "ceiling" as an NHLer. Clearly he’s got more pop than your run of the mill, five minutes of ice-time per game, fourth line thug.

Oh and we should mention another link between the two burgeoning young power-forwards: they don’t seem to like each very much, having fought on three separate occassions during their OHL career according to Think they might drop the gloves again on Monday night? 

Zack Kassian wipes the floor with Clifford in this one:

I’d call this one a draw, I think. What a marathon bout this is: