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What to expect from Jacob Middleton, Wild’s newest defenseman

Minnesota got a new shiny blueliner that comes with some grit.

Minnesota Wild v San Jose Sharks Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI

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.

Murdering Penalties

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.

via hockeyviz

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.

Jacob Middleton is an extremely adept third-pairing defender, whose work ethic cannot be applauded enough. For his incredibly cheap contract and how he’s handled the work load he’s unexpectedly been given in San Jose this season, I don’t think there was a better depth defender available at this trade deadline.

An underrated part of the deal is that the Wild will have the opportunity to extend him as a restricted free agent, and with just one full NHL season under his belt, they could get him fairly cheap for the next couple of years. The salary cap being what it is, that’s a massive part of his value, and not least among the reasons San Jose wanted to keep Middleton if the deal wasn’t right.

On ice, Middleton’s play is responsible, finding success staying back to hold the zone while Erik Karlsson would doing his free-wheelin’, Erik Karlsson-type things on the rush. On the penalty kill, Middleton was the team’s third most-used defender, behind Brent Burns and Mario Ferraro, and the only player to have more takeaways on the penalty kill (per 60 minutes) than Middleton was Karlsson. He also ranked second in shots blocked per 60 on the penalty kill, behind Ferraro. The penalty kill has been the only consistently good thing the Sharks have put on the ice this season and Middleton is a huge support piece there, blocking shots and using his strong stride to break pucks out of the zone.

Of course, he is a heavily penalized player, taking 9 major penalties and 12 minor penalties in 45 games. The Sharks have a number of players willing to fight this season, but you know it’s serious business when Middleton gets involved. Jeffrey Viel and Jonah Gadjovich are fists first, thoughts later type of players, but Middleton is more selective and personal in his decision to throw punches. If coaches insist that fighting sends a message or speaks to a positive team culture, Middleton is a player they could point to as evidence. He also draws quite a few penalties (14, leading all Sharks defenders), helping to off-set the penalties taken.

Sounds good enough to me!

Middleton will make his Wild debut on Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks.