There’s no doubt that acquiring Jake Middleton at the trade deadline was a stroke of genius from Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin. Kaapo Kahkonen proved himself a capable backup, but he was ultimately surplus when the Wild added Marc-Andre Fleury. Not to mention that with the talented Jesper Wallstedt waiting in the wings, Kahkonen’s future with the club looked bleak. So being able to exchange Kahkonen plus a late-round draft for Middleton, a player who seamlessly transitioned into Minnesota’s top-four post-deadline, was a savvy move from Guerin.
What about going forward, though? Does Middleton, a restricted free agent, have a long-term future in Minnesota? And if he does, what should Wild fans expect his next contract to look like?
One would certainly think Middleton, 26, has carved out a future in Minnesota. Guerin probably wouldn’t have moved for a younger but skilled defenseman without intending to keep him around past the playoffs — especially when he traded a 25-year-old goaltender with 65 career starts already under his belt for him.
On the ice, Middleton is clearly a great fit with the Wild. When Alex Goligoski went through a rough patch and even had to rest for a few games, Middleton stepped in on the top pairing opposite Jared Spurgeon. Middleton brought energy and defensive responsibility to the lineup, two areas that Goligoski lacked in that role. It also allowed Spurgeon to jump up in the play more often. The Wild captain had his best offensive stretch of the season alongside Middleton, registering a point in seven straight games after the Wild formed that duo.
Chances are that Guerin and his staff saw this too and fully intend to extend him this summer. But can Guerin promise him a consistent role in the lineup on an already logjammed Wild blueline? Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin aren’t going anywhere, and neither are Goligoski and Jon Merrill, who the Wild recently extended. That leaves Middleton, Matt Dumba, Dmitry Kulikov, and Calen Addison all vying for two remaining lineup spots. Dumba and Kulikov are a year away from unrestricted free agency, while Addison has one year left on his entry-level contract. That’s a lot of cooks in an already-packed kitchen. If Middleton gets extended, it’s tough to see that not spelling doom for Dumba and/or Kulikov.
So what should his next contract look like? Middleton played himself into a hefty raise this season from a purely analytical standpoint. He posted good defensive numbers playing on the top defensive pairing in Minnesota and San Jose. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn estimates his market value at $3.5 million, giving him a surplus value of $2.8 million this season.
Market value is entirely different from actual value, though. Evolving Hockey has Middleton projected at less than a million for a two-year term and $1.12 million for three. Consider that Middleton only has 80 career games under his belt, with 66 coming in 2021-22, so finding a reasonable middle ground shouldn’t be too difficult. Would he be willing to take something similar to Merrill’s 3-year, $3.6 million extension? Or can Middleton make a case for something closer to Goligoski’s 2-year, $4 million deal? His lack of experience suggests the former, but he very well could make a case for the latter.
Ideally, Guerin signs Middleton to a team-friendly AAV in the two- to three-year range. That provides the Wild with more cost certainty as it navigates the dead cap era, and it gives Middleton a guaranteed roster spot, with the opportunity to earn a payday in a few seasons.
Should his contract prove too costly, or if Minnesota can’t give him the role in the lineup he’s looking for, they’ll have no trouble finding a suitor for him. There was reportedly a lot of interest in Middleton at the deadline this year. You’d figure there would be similar interest if a deal with the Wild falls through.
For the right price, bringing Middleton back is a no-brainer for Minnesota. He’s still young, can play alongside Spurgeon or a third-pair role, and should be quite cheap for a cap-strapped Wild team. Perhaps it’s not the most pressing issue for Guerin this summer, but it is something that should get sorted out with urgency.