Winning Play: Middleton and San Jose’s playoff defensive pairings
On the same day that Erik Karlsson re-joined his teammates on the ice for morning skate — the first time he’s been on the ice with all his teammates since Feb. 26 at Boston — Jacob Middleton took Joakim Ryan’s place next to Brent Burns in the San Jose Sharks’ 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
A week away from the post-season, San Jose’s defensive pairings are in some flux.
Middleton acquitted himself well enough in his first NHL action since Jan. 5. The rookie defender flashed quick-enough feet and sound instincts in almost 13 minutes of ice time.
The 6-foot-3 defender showed good length and solid gap control while shepherding Adam Gaudette (88) away from the middle of the ice.
In much the same way, Middleton skated side by side with Tanner Pearson (70), discouraging him from center lane drive. Middleton departed from his left defense position here, but recovered with ease after Burns pointed him back.
Middleton’s feet and length and instincts helped make a couple intelligent pinches, too.
The first clip also featured a sharp pass from Middleton to Burns that kickstarted some offensive zone time. A couple routine-looking Middleton D-to-D passes seemed to skip on Burns, but otherwise, the rookie was clean in the puck-moving department.
Overall, there’s reason to believe that all Middleton needs is experience to earn his spot in an NHL line-up. Unfortunately, two regular season games may not be enough time to gain the requisite seasoning.
Comparing Middleton to the injured Radim Simek, who Ryan and now Middleton are trying to replace, experience might be the chief difference. The 26-year-old Simek was a professional hockey veteran.
While the 23-year-old Middleton boasts a noteworthy maturity — to a man, his Barracuda teammates say he was second only to captain John McCarthy as a locker room leader — he may not have the on-the-ice reps yet. Can Middleton bridge the gap in time for this postseason?
According to a scout who I spoke with, Middleton has the talent.
“He was way better than Simek in the AHL. Simek has more skill, but isn’t smarter,” the scout offered. “Middleton is smart and simple. He won’t panic, but won’t do anything spectacular. If you don’t notice him, he’s done his job.”
He added, when talking about the calm youngster’s chemistry with the rambunctious Burns, “It’s a fine fit with their styles.”
Another scout chimed in, “I don’t mind Jake Middleton. He’s a big defender who can stop the puck down-low. He’s closer to Simek than Ryan.”
Regarding Karlsson, his potential return will lead to some interesting line-up decisions.
With a healthy Karlsson, the Sharks have a glut of right-handed defensemen.
Karlsson, Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brenden Dillon and Justin Braun are sure to suit up.
Tim Heed may be more trusted by the coaching staff than Ryan or Middleton right now, but does he get pushed out for three lefty-righty pairings? Or will somebody — perhaps Braun, who has experience patrolling his off-side — man the left? And if Braun, Vlasic and Dillon are playing the left side, who will skate with Burns?