Even if you don’t know Cliff Pu by name, or follow the London Knights at all, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Pu’s now-signature goal celebration. Back in January, rather than celebrate scoring a goal in the traditional manner, Pu opted to take off his glove and shake the hand of his linemate Max Jones (also 2016 NHL draft eligible).
It’s his personality as much as his game that has seen Pu adopted and adored by the London faithful since coming over from the Oshawa Generals last season in the trade that sent Michael McCarron and Dakota Mermis to join Oshawa’s run at the Memorial Cup. The crowd at the Bud even chants “Puuuuuu” every time he touches the puck.
At 6-foot-1 and 188 pounds, Pu doesn’t fit the image of the sizeable power forward so adored by scouts, but that hasn’t come close to stopping him. Able to play both center and right wing, Pu has been solid for the Knights this season, particularly for the second half and into their playoff run that culminated this week in an OHL championship.
Pu ended the regular season with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 63 regular season games, with a strong second half that included eight points in his final eight games, pushing him from 83rd among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s midterm rankings to 75th in their final rankings. His playoff scoring—13 points (eight goals, five assists) in 18 games suggests that Pu has more to give than we’ve yet seen in his regular season performance, particularly if he is given more time and responsibility.
He isn’t a first-round pick. He’s probably not even a second-round pick, but here’s the thing—he doesn’t need to be in order for a team to get a good player by drafting him. With later round picks, you want to get value where you can. Pu brings that value.
Pu is great at anticipating the direction of play, using that anticipation to push his opponents into turning over the puck and taking those opportunities to create offensive chances for himself and his teammates. He has good hands, able to snap off crafty, creative passes or take the shot himself. He has a good head for the game, and great vision—something that’s far more difficult to teach than cleaning up a shot or improving play in a specific zone.
He doesn’t shy away from board battles, and isn’t afraid to play physically. Pu himself has credited the defensive side of his game being as sound as it is, as well as his ability to focus on playing at both ends of the ice, to Paul Coffey, who was his coach during his time with the Toronto Marlboros.
“Cliff’s good. I’ve had the privilege of coaching Cliff for six years and he’s one of those players who was special since the first day I saw him. His game’s just evolved and got better. He’s turned into a real good player. He needs to get better as they all do. But he’s got all the attributes and the work ethic and the team concept to hopefully do good things.” — Paul Coffey to Channel 12 Oshawa’s Dan Malta
Pu has referred to himself as a pass-first kind of guy, preferring to make and set up plays, but he can score goals when he uses his shot. He isn’t going to be a future top-line threat, but he’s got offensive ability to add to his ability to shut down other teams in his own zone.
He needs to improve on his play in the neutral zone and his faceoff ability. He could also clean up his shot and get it off more quickly. Making these improvements and adding some size could put him on track to project as a solid power forward type—a strong presence on a team’s third line, with the ability to jump up if injury deems it necessary.
Something important to keep in mind about Pu is that he’s played much of his OHL career on teams with many top-end guys. He hasn’t really had that prime opportunity to showcase what he can do with top offensive minutes.
Thanks to the injuries the Knights have battled this season, as well as the suspensions many of their forwards have earned for themselves, Pu has seen pockets of more offensive responsibility, and he’s made the most of it. What he can do next season will be interesting to watch.