The Minnesota Wild got a bunch of new guys in the last couple of weeks. Whether it is post-hype youngster Tyson Jost, bruising grinder Nicolas Deslauriers, or the future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Marc-André Fleury; the Wild got seemingly better with the NHL Trade Deadline coming and going. One of the least talked about acquisitions, but certainly the one with a long-term vision in mind, was getting defenseman Jacob Middleton in return for netminder Kaapo Kahkonen, who had to be moved with a third NHL goalie coming in. GM Bill Guerin saw his forced move as something he could benefit from and snatched at the opportunity to get Middleton; but why did he do it?
In short, Middleton is a 26-year-old left-handed defenseman that is going to be a restricted free agent this summer. Because he has essentially only one NHL season of experience, if he plays well, he will be extremely cheap to extend, and if he doesn’t, then there isn’t really any commitment to the guy. There are a lot of financially-motivated options for having Middleton on the team, so it makes sense from that point of view.
On the ice, the man from Wainwright, Alta. has had the pleasure of being next to Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns for approximately 595 of the 738 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. While it might just seem like an initial lack of blueliners for the San Jose Sharks, Middleton has been able to play well enough to have better underlying numbers than the team without him on the ice. Context could be, obviously: Yeah, duh, Karlsson and Burns was out there as well, but Middleton needs to get some of the credit.
His big, bruising, crease-clearing, face-punching game compliments the speedy partner that wants to get up the ice well enough for head coach Dean Evason to partner him with Jared Spurgeon in his first game on Thursday.
Evason justified the immediate lineup decision on size, ultimately.
“He’s bigger than him,” Evason said. “He’s a big body. The first time seeing him, he skates real well. He moves the puck well. He played big minutes there. He’s a physical presence. … Just someone that makes it really difficult to get to the net. I’m not just talking hitting or fighting. … It’s going to be difficult when we’ve got a big, strong man that’s going to be physically engaged. Hopefully it deters some people (from) wanting to get to the front of our net.”
At even-strength he’ll have a stable partner, but he can also provide a little bit of a different look to the Wild’s special teams.
The penalty kill has been the one hole that the Wild just cannot seem to figure out mid-season. As of Thursday morning, they rank 26th in the whole league in shorthanded unblocked shot attempts against rate, and actual shots on goal against rate. Basically, they give up a ton while on the penalty kill and have all season long.
Middleton can certainly help that and if your opinion is swayed over graphs, well I got a hell of a one here for you.
Aside from the points and directly in front of the net, while Middleton was on the ice, the Sharks have been a very good penalty-killing team. Overall, his impact is 12 percent better than league average defensively (minus is good) and compared to the other depth defenders that were killing penalties like Jon Merrill and Dmitry Kulikov (both blueliners have been just two percent better than league average in shorthanded isolated impact), it is a massive improvement.
A Minor Amount of Offense
Expecting any amount of offensive production from a player that has scored three goals and has 12 points in 59 career NHL games might be a fool’s errand, but at least Middleton has shown some examples of being not the standard stay-at-home defenseman and more of a modern blueliner that isn’t afraid to — at times — jump deep into the zone.
While Minnesota will rely on the other members of the top-four like Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, and Middleton’s partner Spurgeon, to provide much more offense, the newcomer is certainly not restrained and being in Evason’s five-man attack system might unleash some sort of new productive beast within.
A Professional Opinion
I didn’t want to put out any baseless claims in this blog. It’s easy to get somewhat of an understanding of a player from underlying numbers and short highlights, but clearly, I am not watching Sharks games every night.
But Sie Morley, the managing editor of our Sharks site, Fear The Fin, has watched every game of Middleton and they have his entire game summarized in a few paragraphs.
Sounds good enough to me!
Middleton will make his Wild debut on Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks.