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  • Jake Middleton Is the Most Interesting Man In Minnesota's Defense Corps

    Image courtesy of Jeffrey Becker-USA Today Sports
    Justin Hein

    Jake Middleton is one of the coolest players to ever suit up in the Minnesota Wild’s forest green. On top of his play on the ice, his aura is captivating. His mustache is well-known throughout the State of Hockey as well as the Duke Cannon marketing department. Among professional hockey players, Middleton's humble roots are increasingly rare.

    He wears that identity on his sleeve. Middleton is still an avid motorcyclist and near-nudist who parades around the locker room in a jockstrap because he “runs hot.” While playing in the AHL for the San Jose Barracudas, he scraped by on a $50,000 salary by sleeping on a mattress in his teammates’ dining room. In a league of ever-increasing salaries, he’s proud simply to be a millionaire.

    He is the most interesting man in the locker room. 

    Middleton's ethos carries onto the ice, in the blurry realm between player identity and on-ice results. He’s a throwback, embracing the physicality of the corner boards and smiling toothlessly through blocked shots. He’s listed at 6’3”, 220 pounds, built like a strong safety on ice skates. 

    Paired with defense partner Jared Spurgeon, their brand of cover-2 makes up one of the best shutdown pairings in the league. Spurgeon is an elite puck-mover, great at playing keep-away via smooth puck retrieval in his own zone. A hard-nosed partner unlocks Spurgeon’s offensive talents including skating up in the rush and a deceptive shot. 

    Of the 111 defensive pairs with 300-plus 5-on-5 minutes in the 2022-23 season, Middleton and Spurgeon rank 13th in expected goals (xG) against per hour, according to Money Puck. Overall, they take 53.5% of the xG share, tops on the Wild. Middleton’s Thunder and Spurgeon’s Lightning matched up against Minnesota’s toughest opponents and killed penalties left and right, but they got the better of them in spite of that. 

    This chemistry was evident immediately after the Wild acquired Middleton at the 2021-22 trade deadline. It’s the reason that general manager Bill Guerin extended for three years at $2.45 million, committing to Middleton through his age-29 season. 

    Despite their excellence, the team has to consider the possibility of splitting them up this year. Minnesota’s defense corps is in a state of flux that this organization hasn’t dealt with in years. Matt Dumba is almost certainly gone, opening the right defense spot next to Jonas Brodin for the first time since Dumba’s pectoral injury back in 2018-19.

    The candidates for that spot include Spurgeon, rookie Brock Faber, black sheep Calen Addison, and whatever free agent Minnesota can afford amidst their dire salary cap situation. This poses a serious decision to the Wild coaching staff this season. If they leave Middleton with Spurgeon, who replaces Dumba? And if Spurgeon joins Brodin, how can Middleton remain effective as a role player? 

    It’s a poor idea to saddle Brodin with Addison. On top of being an excellent defensive defenseman, a reliable puck-mover, and one of the world’s best skaters, Dean Evason loves putting him in the toughest matchups. Brodin is an excellent teammate who would happily take on a mentorship role, but he’s more valuable as an eraser. He simply can’t do that if alongside Addison’s leaky defense. Meanwhile, Spurgeon and Middleton may not have the skating ability to usurp Brodin’s pairing as the shutdown unit. 

    However, if Faber jumps to the top four next to Brodin, it’s possible that he can allow Brodin to maintain his shutdown role. Faber was one of the best defensive defensemen in the NCAA in 2022-23, but the Wild heavily sheltered him from the Dallas Stars’ most dangerous weapons in the playoffs. Furthermore, Faber and Brodin are so selfless that they may leave some meat on the bone offensively. Faber’s goal last year was to improve his offensive game, and Brodin will need to shoulder more puck-carrying responsibilities without Dumba on his right side. Putting them together could hamper both of these goals, leaving the Wild defense corps without much puck-moving bite outside of Spurgeon. 

    The only remaining possibility, barring outside help, is to explore splitting Spurgeon and Middleton. That would allow the team to keep Brodin in the same role and load up their top pairing with their best two defensemen for as many tough minutes as they can find. This is what makes Middleton so interesting this summer -- his role is totally up in the air. He could be playing next to a new partner. Even if he plays with Spurgeon, he may be forced into taking on more responsibilities as one of the most experienced players on the blueline.

    Watch Minnesota’s moves closely, and remember to view them through the lens of a simple question: What does this mean for Jake Middleton? The answer to that question will tell you what kind of blueline the Wild are trying to create.

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    Faber was one of the best defensive defensemen in the NCAA in 2022-23, but the Wild heavily sheltered him from the Dallas Stars’ most dangerous weapons in the playoffs. 

    Did they? Do you remember his linemate? John Klingberg was the sheltered player on that blue line.

    Kudos on the "Middy" article, love his nonchalant presence and cool demeanor. He's one of my favorite D-men we have. He's a lunchbox throwback and I'm loving every minute of his ice time. I hope BG can pull another rabbit out of his hat for a linemate. 

    Great article!


    Edited by vonlonster67
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    Faber is a top 4 level defenseman with excellent skating and solid puck skills.

    I imagine the Wild will consider putting Faber and Middleton together and pairing Spurgeon with Brodin. Either that, or they put Faber with Brodin, giving the Wild 2 very solid defensive units either way they go.

    Merrill can play with Addison on the 3rd pairing(assuming they sign Addison back as a RFA). Also assumes no trades and none of the prospects beating them out. Perhaps the message has sunk in with Addison and he's going to become a better, more mature version of the player we had seen.

    They may give Addison all those PP minutes early again to at least pump up his trade value before turning the page if that is what they decide to do. Also possible they find a trade to help their cap situation and re-sign Dumba, but difficult to bank on that at this moment.

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    Spurgeon and Brodin becoming a consistent pairing will be a nightmare offensively for our opponents.

    To be fair though, I think we will probably see Brodin playing alongside Faber. I also think Faber won’t have any trouble slotting in next to him. The pairing probably won’t have a lot of offensive upside, but when you have a Brodin who is that good at defense, and a Faber who can likely get close to that level defensively that will be a pretty successful pairing.

    Also love Middleton, he was a real find. Really glad we were able to give him a solid deal and I believe he has definitely outplayed expectations.

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    1 hour ago, Will D. Ness said:

    I psyched to see what Faber brings next season.  Who knows if he is limited offensively.  It has yet to be proven.

    Faber showed a willingness to take the puck into the "O" zone later in the playoff games.

    I believe we have just scratched the surface with him and Brodin  alternating and flashing in Brodin down deep and Faber taking shots from the perimeter.

    The Wild have more plans for Faber than protecting the blue line.

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    Would love to see the lines jumbled / re-arranged a bit more this season every now and then across the lineup so more teammates are able to slot in, in case of injuries. I understand Evason's reluctancy to not mess with a good thing, but each player should have some sort of an understanding of how to mesh well with other players.

    Side note: the IIHF World Championship Quarterfinals start tomorrow. Despite Team Austria not making it into the final 8 teams (out of 16), Rossi did get the team MVP with 1G, 5A, 6P in 7 games, which isn't too shabby considering Austria's GF:GA was 11:27, meaning Rossi was involved in more than half of Austria's points.

    As for Team Sweden, they finished the Preliminary Round with the 3rd most points (after USA and Switzerland). Wallstedt played 3 of the 7 games (might have had the lighter workload compared to Johansson), but has one of the best SVS% in the tournament with 94.74% (5th out of 22 goalies) and tied for the best GAA with 0.67.

    And the only other Wild player still in the tournament is Middleton, who's 2nd in +/- with +6 after Weegar on Team Canada.

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    13 hours ago, vonlonster67 said:

    I believe we have just scratched the surface with him and Brodin  alternating and flashing in Brodin down deep and Faber taking shots from the perimeter.

    The Wild have more plans for Faber than protecting the blue line.

    Defensive partners have a lot to offer in the case of mentoring and is one reason why switching them around a little makes sense with Faber. When Suter first came over, he had a young Brodin as his partner. How much did Suter teach Brodin? I would say a lot.

    When Dumba was struggling they paired him up with Suter for awhile. Was it just the 2nd half of a season that had Dumba play well, or was it Suter's calming game that helped him? 

    Of course, all of this happened prior to Suter's ankle injury when he had better speed. Later, after Scandella left, Spurgeon was Suter's partner and it was a good pairing until Suter could no longer keep up, and Spurgeon couldn't really take risks in the offensive end.

    Now it's Spurgeon, Brodin and Middleton's turn to mentor. Spending some time with each isn't a bad plan, though I doubt that Faber will ever be Spurgeon's partner. But, Spurgeon is likely the loudest voice in the defensive room. 

    I think I'd match Faber up with Brodin to start, and switch to Middleton after about 20 games. I'd want to see how Brodin-Spurgeon play together too. 

    Brodin plays a very conservative game, but he can skate the puck up and provide a little offense. Middeton's game is far more simple, his offense comes from a point shot or a cross ice pass to Spurgeon. (and the occasional sneaky stretch pass that nobody expects)


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