Middleton has become a wise investment for wildlife

Jake Middleton wasn’t a household name when he arrived in a trade with the San Jose Sharks before the 2021-22 deadline. However, his impressive play next to Minnesota captain Jared Spurgeon down the stretch was enough to convince the Wild to sign a three-year, $7.5 million contract. A year later, he still ranks next to Spurgeon, and the pair are stellar. They were a rock for Minnesota, showing the Wild were wise to invest in him.

In San Jose, Middleton was partnered with former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson for most of the season. Before Minnesota traded Kapo Kakonen outright for Middleton, he played a responsible, tightly controlled role as a point guard who stayed at home with Karlsson’s free-flowing offensive ways.

But when did he get to Minnesota? Well, he did the exact same thing: All brakes, no gas. Okay. That’s what the Wild wanted, and that’s what Middleton is giving them.

Courtesy of Evolving-Hockey

Middleton puts the “defense” in “defender.” Sure, Middleton provides next to nothing offensively for the Wild, but he doesn’t have to. That’s not his role, and that’s why the Wild have Spurgeon.

Still, he’s on pace to beat his career high of 14 points, albeit by just two. Maybe that wouldn’t have affected last year’s team, which was flying high when defensemen like Dmitri Kulikov and John Merrill, who stayed at home, scored 20 points. But this year, Middleton ranks fourth among Wild defensemen in scoring.

But where he really makes a difference, especially alongside Spurgeon, is in the hitting department. He leads the team with 93 hits on the season. Middleton puts her body at risk in other ways, too. His 124 blocked shots are 23rd in the NHL and second only to Spurgeon on the team.

That willingness to sacrifice his body will become crucial in the playoffs when things get tighter and physicality is more prominent. He’s safe, he’s dependable and he knows his role: clear the net, get the body, get the puck and give it to Spurgeon.

This defensive duo combined for the seventh most minutes in the league. As a pair, their 1.47 goals against per hour at 5-on-5 ranks sixth among the 135 defensive units with over 200 minutes. Unsurprisingly, they’re also 12th in goals-for-percentage at 5-on-5 (62.9%) and 23rd in expected field goal percentage (55.5%). They have a high save percentage, which suggests they may need a few more pucks, but they also cut chances for opponents.

This is true even if they give up many shot attempts. They are 73rd out of 135 defensive pairings in punt attempts allowed, just in the bottom half of the league. But that’s by design. Remember, they may hit a lot of shots, but not all of them hit the net. In fact, Spurgeon and Middleton have the best shot-to-block ratio as a collective duo. Many others are harmless around the perimeter.

As that steady defensive presence, Middleton allowed Spurgeon to be more active on the blue line, and it led to his second-best scoring season of his career. He scored the second-best expected goals of his career and that put Spurgeon in the Norris Trophy conversation, according to The Athletic.

So Middleton’s game has been really solid for the Wild so far. He’s arrived exactly as advertised, but is he worth the contract the Wild gave him?

In a word: Unequivocal.

Middleton was a rock star. He earns top-pair minutes, allowing Spurgeon to do what he does best – be proactive on offense. Middleton is also Minnesota’s most physical defender.

There are plenty of guys around the league who get paid way more to do less than what Middleton provides Minnesota. Guys like Eric Johnson, Tyler Myers, and Ryan McDonagh are in the same structure/role that Middletoin is in, but Middleton provides a lot more bang for the buck.

He is by no means the greatest player in the league. It’s not like the Ryan Hartman contract or some insanely valuable deal like that. However, this is good business by Bill Guerin.

There were questions about whether the Wild should give away a million dollar deal for a former 7th round pick. He really hadn’t shown that much at the NHL level and he doesn’t even own a suitcase (yes, that’s true). Consequently, the deal was met with a lot of meh reactions. However, Middleton’s contract has proven to be a great addition to Minnesota’s defensive core and brings them something they don’t otherwise have.

All stats via Moneypuck.com & Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted.

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