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Post-season Send Off: Jake Middleton

Acquired at the trade deadline, Wild hopes to make RFA defenseman a part of its core moving forward this summer

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

Jake Middleton is ... a little different than your standard NHL defenseman. This is a guy, after all, who owns about a half dozen t-shirts to his name, and simply logs onto Amazon when it's time to change out the wardrobe. 

The day he was traded to Minnesota, Middleton found out he was being moved but couldn't immediately pack his bags ... because he didn't have any.

He had to wait until the local mall opened so he could quickly get over and buy a couple suitcases. 

For Minnesota, the couple-hour delay was more than worth the wait. There's little doubt the 26-year-old blueliner's addition at the league's Trade Deadline back in March helped propel the Wild down the stretch.

Now, the team is interested in making Middleton a staple in the years ahead. 

"He's a beauty, he's a guy that we really like and he was a really popular guy in a short amount of time," Wild General Manager Bill Guerin said last month at his post-season media availability. "We want him back."

In a dressing room that has been completely remade in the last couple of seasons, Middleton's mid-season acquisition and seamless addition to the locker room is perhaps a perfect example of what the Wild has been trying to do.

Often times, guys coming into a new situation, during a high-stress point in the season, struggle to find their footing and their place amongst a group that has battled together for months beforehand. 

That just wasn't the case for the laid back, easy-going Middleton, who looked like a man who came up in the Wild's system he was so immediately comfortable. 

Video: Season wrap up: Dumba and Middleton

"I've mentioned how much I enjoy it here and how seamless the fit was right away. Going from not knowing a single person here to having 25 really good friends was something special to be a part of," Middleton said last month. "I'm pretty bummed out that it's ended now because I'm just getting to know these guys. I really enjoyed going to war with them every night. I'm really enjoying it here, and it would be nice to come back."

Now the million-dollar question is: how many millions of dollars will it take to keep the enigmatic Middleton in a Wild uniform?

Selected dead last by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 NHL Draft, Middleton made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks by playing three games in 2018-19. He played a grand total of 14 NHL games over three seasons, and arrived at Sharks training camp this past season targeting a return to the American Hockey League. 

But he had a great camp, earned an NHL job, then moved his way up the lineup, playing in 45 games with the Sharks -- often times with top-end guys like Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. 

When the Wild traded goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen and a fifth-round pick in the 2022 Draft to acquire Middleton, he was immediately slotted next to Jared Spurgeon on Minnesota's top pairing.

The duo was outstanding almost immediately, and looked like it has the potential to be a formidable pairing for years to come, assuming the Wild and Middleton can find a way to make the dollars and cents work this offseason.

Middleton is a restricted free agent that counted just $725,000 against the salary cap last season, a number that will surely rise in the years ahead. 

Video: MIN@STL: Middleton fires home shot from the circle

One thing is certain: the Wild seems intent on making a new deal happen and turning its defensive odd-couple into more of a long-term thing.

"I think just getting that comfort level for each other and knowing where each other is for certain situations. You only get that through games," Spurgeon said. "I think it was a little feeling out process, and obviously for him coming to a new team with new systems was a bit different as well. I can't say enough good things about him."

The things Middleton does well don't always show up on the stat sheet. He's not a guy who will likely ever put up huge numbers, although Wild coach Dean Evason said repeatedly he was surprised at some of Middleton's offensive instincts.

In 80 NHL games -- almost a full season's worth of contests -- Middleton has four goals and 17 points. 

But on a Sharks team that was chock full of minuses on the back end this season, Middleton was a plus-3 in 45 games. He was a plus-5 in 21 games after the trade to Minnesota and was a plus-6 in the six-game First Round loss to the St. Louis Blues. 

Video: MIN@STL, Gm4: Boldy nets 1st career playoff goal

He's the Wild's yin to Spurgeon's yang, his peanut butter to Spurgeon's jelly, his chocolate to Spurgeon's vanilla -- the seemingly perfect mix and match of size and skillsets

The common denominator that makes it all go?

"I think we're both pretty simple players," Spurgeon said. "Try and get the puck up to the forwards as quick as possible and not overcomplicate things."

It's that simplicity to their games, and their firm grasp of their roles on the team that makes this a pairing that was so special in limited time this season, and one the Wild hopes will be a match moving forward as well.

"Spurge is a highly skilled player, but he's a little more simple than [Karlsson and Burns]," Middleton said. "Those two being Norris Trophy defensemen, they got a long, long leash and it's because they were so good at the game for so long and still are. 

"As far as that goes, Spurge, like I said, is highly skilled. He's just a little more simple, which I can run with that too." 

Should he return to Minnesota, as is the expectation, Middleton won't have to worry about returning to the AHL or purchasing any luggage. 

There's no doubt he'd be a big part of the Wild's core moving forward. 

"It's been a pretty gnarly ride," Middleton said of his breakout campaign. "I started out thinking I was just going to be playing in the America League again. Made camp, read my name all over Twitter and got traded a couple days later to a contending team with a bunch of great dudes. I don't even know. It was so cool to be a part of.  

"I'm bummed [the season is] over because it's been some of the most fun I've ever had. Bummed, but looking back I'm pretty happy with how things worked out."

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