The San Jose Sharks are firmly out of a playoff spot. Likely to miss the postseason for the third time in a row, the team will hope to continue stockpiling future assets heading into the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.
The deadline can be tricky. General manager (GM) Doug Wilson, assistant GM Joe Will, and president Jonathan Becher have made it clear they don’t want to commit to a full rebuild and want to return to postseason hockey as quickly as possible.
Which makes things complicated. The team has pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) like Tomas Hertl and Alexander Barabanov who are in their late-20s. The Sharks need to convince these top-six forwards to re-sign in order to make their roster competitive for next season. But, the terms of these contracts could be lengthy and harmful to the future success of the team when they need to re-sign younger key players like Timo Meier.
In addition to Barabanov and Hertl, the Sharks have another pending free agent garnering the interest of contending teams: Jacob Middleton. The journeyman defenseman has performed extremely well, especially when paired with a resurgent Erik Karlsson.
The 26-year-old needs to play 18 more games to earn restricted free agent (RFA) status. If not, he will become a Group 6 UFA and eligible to be signed by any team in the offseason. Should the Sharks trade their most consistent defensive defenseman of the season? Is Middleton in their future plans?
As Pierre LeBrun noted on TSN’s Insider Trading “He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year, he’s making only $725,000, he’s a bit of an old-school physical brand that teams headed to the playoffs like to stash on their roster. Among the teams that have kicked tires I’m told [are] Tampa Bay, Boston, and St. Louis.”
Jake Middleton: Found Money
Middleton has been the shock of the Sharks’ season. Since 2016-17 the former Ottawa 67’s blueliner has been a staple on the San Jose Barracuda’s defense as a gritty and hard-nosed player. At the American Hockey League (AHL) level, he’s always averaged more than a penalty minute per game, often fighting on behalf of his teammates.
That would lead one to believe he would continue this enforcer role at the NHL level, but he’s become too useful to do so. According to MoneyPuck, the Sharks control expected-goals 5.5 percent better with Middleton on the ice. The only other skaters with more positive impacts are Meier and Karlsson.
He puts up these incredibly positive results while starting the second-most shifts in the defensive zone among Sharks’ blueliners. When paired with Karlsson, they perform as an average top pairing in the NHL, however, that is a little inflated from Brent Burns and Mario Ferraro taking on heavy defensive responsibilities.
It would have been wild to state before 2021-22, but I would say Middleton has been one of the most consistent defensive players for the Sharks this season. But that’s the thing, the organization likely did not have Middleton in the plans for their future defense core. Recouping a decent asset for “found money” would be stellar for a club in need of future talent.
The Sharks are already locked onto veteran lefthanded defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Radim Simek for the foreseeable future. Buying out either is not realistic until at least after next season, and trades are especially unlikely for Vlasic and his full no-movement clause.
The Sharks have other lefties chomping at the bit for ice time as well. Ferraro is also an RFA, and already an alternate captain at his young age. Additionally, Nikolai Knyzhov has yet to play this season after impressing in a top-four role in 2020-21. 2019 draft picks Artemi Kniazev and Santeri Hatakka have already made NHL appearances and continue to grow in the AHL.
The Sharks are deep at Middleton’s position. If he was traded to one of the mentioned contenders, the team has other options for the 2022-23 season.
Gauging Middleton’s Value
While his results have been incredibly impressive, Middleton is still a bit of an unknown asset league-wide. While he may be on the top-pairing for the Sharks, he would be a bottom-pairing player on most contending rosters. For example, the Tampa Bay Lightning already boast Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev.
It’s hard to detail what his value might be on the open market. Last season, the Sharks dealt healthy scratch defenseman Fredrik Claesson to the Lightning for 2018 fifth-round pick goalie Magnus Chrona. Also last deadline, a player in a similar role in Patrik Nemeth was traded from the Detroit Red Wings for a 2022 fourth-round pick.
When the Sharks dealt Barclay Goodrow to the Lightning, Wilson attached a third-round pick to the depth forward in order to receive a first-round pick. With an added asset, perhaps Middleton could warrant more. His likely RFA status to finish the season would also add value in a trade.
Even though he’s been stellar for the Sharks this season, I can’t see a contending team giving up more than a third or fourth-round pick for just Middleton. Honestly, I could foresee even less. Veteran Zdeno Chara could also be available at the deadline, playing a similar role while carrying unmatched experience and leadership.
Upcoming Trade Deadline
The NHL Trade Deadline is in just over a week. The Sharks will be sellers and looking to sell off depth like Andrew Cogliano. Decisions regarding more key pieces of the team’s future, like Middleton, Barabanov, and Hertl will be tough for Wilson and Will.
If the Sharks end up dealing the new fan-favourite, I would remember the “found-money” mindset. The organization already enjoys a wealth of left-handed defensemen, who were likely seen as the future of the blue line. If the Sharks can get a decent draft pick or prospect for a player that was never envisioned as a long-term piece, then they will have come out on top.
What do you think of the rumors surrounding Middleton’s future? Let me know in the comments!
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Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!