BUFFALO – Their relationship began almost 12 years ago. Connor Clifton was playing for the New Jersey Hitmen, a junior team in his home state. Don Granato was in his first season coaching at the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Clifton, a defenseman the Sabres signed Saturday, hadn’t made Team USA’s Under-17 squad that year. But during the season, he earned a brief recall to the program.
“That month of hockey I learned more than I ever have, honestly, in that short a period, just because of the way he wanted to play,” Clifton said on a Zoom call Sunday of Granato.
Granato wanted to play aggressively, a style that helped buoy Clifton’s development. A year later, he made USA’s Under-18 squad, a team Granato moved up to coach.
“That was one of the best years of development I’ve ever had,” said Clifton, who spent the last five seasons with the Boston Bruins. “And he was obviously a huge part of that, working with him every day.”
Now, Clifton, having signed a three-year contract with an average annual value of $3.333 million, has another chance to work with Granato.
The Sabres identified defense as an area they needed to upgrade this offseason if they want to take another step following a 91-point campaign.
Throughout his tenure, Granato has sometimes vouched for his former players – general manager Kevyn Adams calls it “pounding the table” – and what they could offer the Sabres.
Granato wanted Adams to pursue Clifton, 28, in free agency.
“I challenge him on a lot of things and ask questions and try to help my own mind understand what he sees,” Adams said Sunday prior to the start of development camp in LECOM Harborcenter. “It certainly didn’t take much. I’ve been watching Clifton for years and he’s a player I’ve always liked a lot.”
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Clifton, a right shot, said Granato’s presence “was a huge part in this decision” to sign with the Sabres.
“It’s always nice to feel wanted, and he made me feel that,” he said. “(I) couldn’t be more excited to work with him again.”
Clifton enjoyed a career year during the Bruins’ record-setting 135-point season in 2022-24, registering five goals, 23 points, 60 penalty minutes and a plus-20 rating in 78 games.
He might be a nice fit on the second defense pairing beside Owen Power, who just had a dynamic rookie season.
“He’s our kind of guy,” Adams said of Clifton. “He’s competitive, he’s a great character person. He’s going to help our group. He’s a good skater, physical presence. He has a real familiarity with the way we want and need to play as a team obviously with his history of Donny. You’re not taking three or four months of burning time to get up to speed.
“I think he’ll step right in and yesterday, in my conversations with (him) and his agents, quickly I realized the admiration and respect he has for Donny and the history. That felt like a pretty good fit, so we were able to move quickly.”
Injuries gave gave Clifton a larger role last season, especially early. He played more than 20 minutes in 12 of the first 17 contests, and overall he averaged 17 minutes, 51 seconds of ice time an outing.
“I got some minutes I wouldn’t have gotten with some of our big guys out,” he said. “And that was a new experience for me. … It was definitely different from what I knew the last four years. But I loved it, I thought I embraced the challenge and I thought I had a great first half of the year.”
While he’s a bit undersized for a defenseman, Clifton likes to showcase what he called an “abrasive style.” Hit counts vary from building to building in the NHL. Still, he compiled a career-high 200 last year.
“I’ve kind of been in a third-pair role my whole career with Boston,” Clifton said. “Obviously, I think my offensive side of things took a jump this past year with (coach Jim Montgomery) helping me build confidence on that side of things, but I’ve always tried to accept my role and play to my role and that’s what it’s been. It’s been trying to throw the body around, trying to create some energy for my teammates.”
Clifton has recorded 10 goals, 43 points, 157 penalty minutes and a plus-37 rating in 232 career games.
The Arizona Coyotes drafted him in the fifth round in 2013, 133rd overall. He played four seasons at Quinnipiac before turning pro.