If you’re a Minnesota Wild fan who’s been holding your breath since free agency started July 13, congratulations. You’re either passed out or, if you’re really good at holding your breath, passed on. Enjoy the afterlife.
For the rest of us still walking the State of Hockey, we’ve been treated to a real snoozefest of an offseason. Sure, the Kevin Fiala trade late last month was fascinating, but it’s the front office equivalent of putting the funniest line of the movie in the trailer. A month later, we’re wondering why we’re even bothering to watch.
In fairness, money is tight for the Wild, and there’s absolutely no one of note left on the free agent market. At least not in their price range. So if you’re looking at the free agent goods spoiling in the summer sun, wondering, Is this it? the answer is, Maybe!
At least there’s the World Juniors in 10 days?
Since we have zero new faces to discuss, we’re turning our attention to a move from a few weeks ago. So let’s talk about Jake Middleton’s contract extension. The Wild extended the restricted free agent Middleton on draft day, locking him into a contract for three years worth $2.45 million per season.
Minnesota picked up Middleton at the trade deadline, shipping goalie Kaapo Kahkonen for the 26-year-old first-year player. Bill Guerin targeted Middleton, who emerged as Erik Karlsson‘s defensive partner, because he had something the rest of the Wild didn’t have: size.
Last year, Jon Merrill was the only player on the Wild blueline above 6’1″. Even their bigger players, Merrill, Dmitry Kulikov, and Jonas Brodin, don’t exactly have a physical reputation. Matt Dumba does, but two major injuries in the last four seasons call his durability into question.
So who clears the net for Minnesota? It was going to have to be Middleton. He didn’t bring much offense last year, and in his case, that’s okay. If you’re playing with Karlsson and Spurgeon, you can go ahead and let them handle the puck. Middleton just needed to handle opposing forwards.
The pairing worked. With Spurgeon and Middleton on the ice, the Wild controlled 51.5% of the expected goal share at 5-on-5. They also got the better of the score-sheet, as well, out-scoring opponents 15-8. 241 minutes is a small sample, but hey, Middleton could only do so much in 21 games. Results are results.
Which is why he got that contract security, despite just 80 career games. With Merrill being out to start the season and the only NHL-ready replacement being 5’11” Calen Addison, Middleton’s size will stand out even more next season.
But will he stand out? And will he do so for the next three seasons?
Guerin locked down the size he wanted but did so at a premium. Evolving Hockey projected Middleton as earning $1.12 million on a three-year contract this offseason. The Wild ended up paying over twice his market value.
To be worth the risk, he’ll need to be the physical, defensive stopper Minnesota’s paying top-dollar for him to be. The concerning thing is, at least in his time in St. Paul, he might not quite have been that guy.
A successful defensive defenseman is usually good at least one of two things. The first is defending the blue line and preventing opponents from making clean zone entries. The second is protecting the net, keeping shots to the outside, and the goalie crease clear.
When it comes to defending the blueline, Middleton’s time in Minnesota was a bit odd. He was the best on the team at allowing opponents to enter the zone with control. Opponents carried the puck in against him only 52.4% of the time, according to Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones tracking project.
But once forwards got in the zone, they did the damage. Middleton allowed a zone entry with a scoring chance 4.5 times for every hour of 5-on-5 play. That’s by far the highest amount on the team.
Could that be a fluke brought on by small sample sizes? Sure. Could it also be a sign that when Middleton gets beaten, he loses badly? It certainly could. It happened in Game 5 against the St. Louis Blues on Vladimir Tarasenko‘s go-ahead goal.
St. Louis dumped the puck in, but Pavel Buchnevich beat Middleton to the puck. Then, despite having over 20 pounds on Buchnevich, Middleton allowed Buchnevich to dish an easy assist to Tarasenko. He didn’t allow a clean entry, but this goal was still on him.
As for defending the net, it’s hard to say how much of an impact he’s had on Spurgeon. At first glance, the duo’s heat map together looks great, with a wall of blue protecting the crease.
That’s solid until you see what Spurgeon did last season without Middleton, mostly with a fairly weak defender in an aged Alex Goligoski.
Charitably, there’s virtually no difference between Spurgeon with or without Middleton around the net. And less charitably, Spurgeon gave up a lot more shots from the rest of the ice, especially the slot, when Middleton was also there. Again, it could be a small sample size, but it could also be a red flag that Middleton doesn’t make an impact proportionate to his size.
So what happens if he’s just a guy? Surely, a $2.45 million deal can’t hurt the Wild, right?
In a way, we’re already seeing a preview of what happens when a low-cost deal goes wrong for this Wild team. Dmitry Kulikov struggled down the stretch and in the playoffs, and he has one season left on a cap hit of $2.25 million. In theory, that should be an easy deal to move and clear over $2 million for a cap-strapped Wild team.
But the problem is, no one’s taking that deal in today’s NHL. The flat cap means a lot of teams need to shed money, and teams with cap space have a ton of options. Teams in Minnesota’s position are giving away good players, sometimes literally for free. In that environment, why would anyone take someone like Kulikov off their hands?
That’s just for one year. If Minnesota is wrong about Middleton and he proves to be just a guy, they’ll be in a worse position than with Kulikov. Not only will Middleton have two years remaining on a more expensive deal next summer, but they’ll also have $2 million more in buyout penalties to navigate. Minnesota made a bet that size matters, and for their sake, they better hope Middleton’s contract measures up.