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Sharks acquire goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen from Wild

Jacob Middleton will be heading to Minnesota as a result.

Minnesota Wild goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen (34) takes the ice for warmups before an NHL hockey game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Minnesota Wild on March 4, 2022, at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY. Photo by Joshua Bessex/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Much has been speculated on whether the San Jose Sharks would find a new home for defender Jacob Middleton, whose play this season has made him a suddenly sought-after depth player for teams in the playoff hunt.

That new home will be St. Paul, as the Minnesota Wild acquired the defender in exchange for goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen and a fifth-round selection in 2022, announced by the Sharks front office this afternoon. The draft pick in question is San Jose’s original pick, traded to the Wild in October 2020 in exchange for goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

The 25-year-old Finnish goaltender was drafted in the fourth round (104 overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Wild, and was, at one point, expected to become a franchise goaltender, especially after the team moved on from both Darcy Kuemper and the aforementioned Dubnyk over the last few seasons. But the team drafted top goaltending prospect Jesper Wallstedt last summer, ensuring the goaltending pipeline will have a solid future, and today, they moved to acquire veteran Marc-Andre Fleury from the Chicago Blackhawks to shore up the net before playoffs.

That made Kahkonen, who has posted a .910 save percentage, 2.87 goals-against average and 12-8-3 record in 25 games this season, a bit redundant.

The Sharks have been trying to figure out their own goaltending future, a venture made frustrating by the injuries and illness that have plagued the crease this season. Though James Reimer was looking to be a temporary fix, to get reliable goaltending during this transition period, giving Adin Hill a chance to adjust to a potential future starting role, the reality has been rougher. Playoffs are out of the picture and now San Jose will be using every asset they have at their disposal — maybe including James Reimer, who has been solid in net, even with the intense and unexpected workload.

Regardless of Reimer’s future, Kahkonen is a goaltender who can challenge for a starting role, and at 25 years old, he’s got several good years of hockey ahead of him, with three seasons and 54 games of NHL experience under his belt. In the 54 games, Kahkonen has posted a 31-17-4 record, 2 shutouts, 2.89 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

“Kaapo is a quick, athletic goaltender who has shown the ability to win consistently at every level he has played,” said assistant general manager Joe Will in a release. “He provides our club additional depth at the goaltending position this season and in the coming years.”

Middleton is an unfortunate piece to lose, as solid depth defenders don’t come easy or cheap in this league. Despite being drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 — the same year as Kahkonen, 210 overall — he came up through the ECHL before signing an AHL contract with the San Jose Barracuda. He earned an NHL contract as a free agent in 2017, persevering in the AHL until he became an NHL regular this season.

Stories like Middleton’s are rare. It’s a difficult journey to climb through the minor leagues, especially when the team that drafted you has decided to not retain your rights. On another team, in another system, maybe Middleton is a career AHL player.

It’s a testament to his work ethic that he pushed his career to where it is, to go from an ECHL amateur tryout to being a highly regarded defender ahead of the trade deadline, especially while he’s still young, is a hell of an achievement. Best of luck to him in Minnesota.