Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Time to step up: Grant Clitsome

  • Defenseman
  • 25 years old, 2nd year in National Hockey League
  • $550,000 cap hit 
  • 0.9% of Columbus Blue Jackets salary cap
  • Contract expires at end of this season
  • 2009-2010 numbers: 11 games played, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points, +/- of zero, 6 penalty minutes, 14:44 avg. time on ice
Does Grant Clitsome have the stuff to make a
serious run at a full-time CBJ roster spot?
Talk about a guy at the crossroads of his hockey-playing career.

Grant Clitsome is 25 years old.  After one year of juniors, he took the college route to the NHL, playing all four years for Clarkson University in New York, an ECAC school.  Clitsome then went straight to the Columbus Blue Jackets' (then-) AHL affiliate in Syracuse, perhaps an indicator that his skill level was sufficient to bypass a stint in juniors.  He then played one full season for the Crunch in 2008-2009.  I'm not sure that one can call him a late bloomer, but he's certainly not a child prodigy.

Had the Jackets not decided to jettison their pricey veterans nor experienced debilitating injuries to the likes of Rusty Klesla in 2009-2010, Clitsome might not have seen the bright lights of Columbus until this forthcoming season, if at all.  Instead, he put in 64 games in Syracuse and then played in 11 more for the Blue Jackets at the end of the season.

By most accounts, Clitsome did nothing to hurt his case for NHL playing time while in Columbus.  He doesn't appear to be a playmaker or scorer, but he did get 5 goals and 15 assists in Syracuse last season in addition to his 3 points during his time in Columbus.  Simply put, he's never going to make the Blue Jackets forget about the likes of Tomas Kaberle...but he's also not going to make Scott Howson pop a handful of Tums every time he hits the ice. 

He's a solid, mature defenseman (the guy had a zero +/- rating on the Jackets last season, which counts for something).  At the same time, his 6 blocked shots in 11 games puts him at a .55 blocks per game level, worst among the CBJ blue-liners (even behind Anton Stralman, who was at .60 blocks/game played...by comparison, the team was led last season by Mathieu Roy at 1.52 blocks/game).  So is Clitsome a stay-at-home defenseman or not?  

Perhaps an argument could be made that his relatively good plus-minus rating mean that his presence was contributing to shots simply not being taken while he was on the ice, hence the lower shot block stats?  This brings us deeper into the arcane world of advanced hockey stats, an area in which I am still learning.  But I'll share what I am learning: A statistic called a Corsi rating might help.  Here's a general definition:
The purpose of the stat is to determine possession. It is, in fact, a proxy for "zone time". A positive corsi rate = more offensive zone time. Negative = more defensive zone time.
Clitsome had a 1.26 Corsi rating last season for the Blue Jackets, putting him at fourth-best on the team.  Using the above definition, we can presume he spent a tad more time in the offensive zone than the defensive zone, but that could well have been a function of Claude Noel's gentle nudges to open up the offense toward the end of the season.  Which coincides with the time that Clitsome was in Columbus.  So what do we have on our hands?

I'm guessing that Grant Clitsome, right now, is perceived as a "tweener".  We've indicated that he hasn't displayed dynamic playmaking ability, nor is he a shutdown defender.  He appears reasonably strong at the AHL level, eats minutes at the NHL level when called upon, and largely doesn't embarrass himself on the ice.  Might this perspective explain why Scott Howson chose to renew this restricted free agent on a two-way basis for only a single season at one of the lowest contract values of anyone on the team?

This is a classic "Your fate is in your hands" situation.  Grant Clitsome has to sharpen his game, in at least one facet, to prove that he's NHL-worthy for the long haul.  Otherwise, he'll be playing out the rest of his career in the AHL, making the trip to Columbus out of necessity and not necessarily merit.  And, perhaps more importantly, he will have a progressively harder time making that trip when one considers all the young, highly-touted defenders who project to be on the Springfield roster this season.

Like Mike Blunden and Derek Mackenzie, I like Grant Clitsome.  These AHLers are motivated like few others on the CBJ roster.  They're old enough to appreciate what they have (and don't have) and are hungry to stay with the big club, leaving it all out on the ice in just about every shift.  It's hard not to root for them.  Hopefully, his extended taste of the NHL life made him all the more hungry this offseason - something that can carry over into training camp.  

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