By Brian Deakyne
LINCROFT – It was the moment that Connor Clifton had been waiting for his entire life.
Sitting in the seats at Prudential Center in Newark on June 30, the former Christian Brothers Academy defensemen was selected in the fifth round National Hockey League entry draft by the Phoenix Coyotes.
Clifton, being drafted at 133 overall, said it didn’t matter who was going to take him.
“It was definitely a process, but it was a special moment to spend with my family,” he said of the draft. “That moment, to hear my name called, was exciting. I wasn’t sure who was going to take me, I just wanted to be drafted.”
Clifton graduated from CBA this spring and compiled eight goals and 23 points on the United States U-18 national team this season.
Despite being undersized for a defenseman, he impressed the Coyotes with his competitiveness and his skill set with the puck.
“What stuck out to me was his competitiveness,” Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving said. “He may be undersized and he may not be like the traditional defensemen, but he’s always making people turn their heads.
“When we had that pick in the fifth round, we were thrilled that he was available. We were really excited to take him.”
Clifton, a Matawan resident, will attend Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. and join their men’s hockey team this fall.
While Phoenix may not be the most popular ice hockey location, Clifton said he’d rather be playing in a smaller market. The Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks – two major professional hockey markets – had picks before and after the Coyotes in the fifth round.
“It was actually unbelievable,” Clifton said of Phoenix. “This is where I want to be. I’d rather play here than the bigger markets like Philadelphia or Chicago.”
Treliving, who saw Clifton play in an international tournament in Europe last February, is hopeful that he will grow and develop over his next few years in college, but said he already displayed some assets of his game that are impressive enough.
“When I saw him play, I thought he was underappreciated for his skill set,” Treliving said. “He had good composure with the puck and he didn’t just slap it around. He’s a solid all-around player.”
Treliving said he would compare Clifton, who spent this week in Phoenix for rookie camp, to current Edmonton Oilers defensemen Andrew Ference.
“He’s an 18-year-old kid and he’s only going to get bigger and stronger,” Treliving said. “He’s going to a good school with a great program and we’re going to help him develop as much as we can.”
Clifton said he would agree with Treliving’s assessment of his game and that his physicality is one of the best parts of his style of play.
“I definitely love taking the body,” Clifton said. “Maybe I’m not the biggest and maybe I’m going to face bigger guys, but it won’t stop me from playing my game.”
“That competitiveness – you just can’t teach that,” Treliving said. “He has a warrior mentality. You either have that mentality or you don’t and Connor has it.”
Clifton is now the third CBA player in the last six years to get drafted by a NHL team. James van Riemsdyk, currently with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007 and Joakim Ryan was drafted by the San Jose Sharks last year.
“I know James van Riemsdyk and Joakim Ryan and they are both great players,” Clifton said. “It’s definitely an honor to be drafted and to be on a list with those guys.”
Treliving said there is no timetable for Clifton to leave college and join the franchise, but time will tell.
“You can’t set a timeline and something like that,” he said. “He’s going to develop and he’s going to get better. Time will tell when he’s ready to come here.”
“I’m going to work on my game and go to school, and when they think I’m ready, that’s when I’ll go,” Clifton said.