More Jake Middleton, more 'Tarps Off' for the Wild, who lock up a character and social-media star

Bill Guerin always says he likes “character people” in his locker room.

But he especially likes “characters.”

Jake Middleton is a bit of both, especially the latter.

The Wild’s budding social-media star — the defenseman with the big stache, missing teeth and tattooed left sleeve, and the funny figure who began the “Tarps Off” shirtless television interviews by teammates with Bally Sports North’s Kevin Gorg — celebrated his four-year, $17.4 million contract extension the past few days by getting on one of his Harley-Davidsons and riding 1,650 miles over 2 ½ days from Sunday to Tuesday with his father, Steve, from Minneapolis to Salmon Arm, British Columbia.

Middleton, 28, didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Even as a younger professional hockey player, during the pandemic, Middleton would return home to Ontario to work at his buddy’s construction company. He built fences, dug ditches and did all other sorts of other hard labor. At one point during his time with the AHL San Jose Barracuda, he could only afford to sleep on the floor of a teammate’s dining room.

So just imagine what Steve Middleton must have been thinking when they stopped at a tiny diner somewhere off a Montana highway and he witnessed his son sign a contract that, starting in 2025-26, will pay him $4.35 million per season. Heck, just imagine what a young Jake Middleton would have thought a few years ago when he was alternating between black and white T-shirts and a couple of pairs of jeans in his small wardrobe.

“He’d probably be pretty proud,” Middleton said, clearly touched thinking about it. “Yeah, he’d just be happy it all worked out, I think.”

Traded to the Wild at the 2022 deadline from the San Jose Sharks for Kaapo Kahkonen, Middleton has scored 11 goals and 45 points in 180 games with 162 penalty minutes for Minnesota, blocking 351 shots, recording 292 hits and getting into 15 fights.

Respected by Guerin for what he does on and off the ice, Middleton is already on his second new contract with the team, taking take him through 2028-29. He’ll play the final year of his existing $2.45 million-per-year deal this upcoming season.

“When you’re going through a trade like that, you don’t really know if the grass is gonna be greener on the other side,” Middleton said. “And in our scenario, it absolutely was, and we just couldn’t be happier.

“You believe in the organization. You believe what they’ve got going on. And you really want to see it through, and signing extensions like this allows you to try and see it through.

“I’m really happy with where it’s at. Obviously it sucks missing the playoffs (in 2023-24), but no excuses. We did have a ton of injuries. But I think there’s good things in the future for this franchise. And I’m happy I get to be a part of it and try and see it through.”

Middleton scored seven goals and 25 points last season. He was minus-15. When he scored his seventh goal, against the Carolina Hurricanes in January, Gorg told him on the air he was on pace for double-digit goals — “maybe 15 by the end of the year.”

Middleton looked spooked.

“I wasn’t extremely happy with my year last year,” Middleton said. “Obviously, when there’s no team success, you don’t really feel there’s personal success, either. It was nice scoring goals — that was kind of fun. I talked to Gorgy after the game in Carolina — he said I should try for 15, and I didn’t score for the next 30-something games.

“But it was an inconsistent year for me, personally, I think, and I’d just like to get back to that (being consistent). That’s what I like to do, be a consistent guy on a nightly basis, let you know what you’re getting, and that’s something that I really want to focus on going forward here.”

One thing that could help is captain Jared Spurgeon getting back to full health. He was limited to 16 games last season, and there’s no denying Middleton is a different player with Spurgeon, his defense partner as soon as he arrived in Minnesota.

With Spurgeon since coming to the Wild, Middleton has a plus-15 goal differential, 49.8 percent Corsi-for share and 54.1 percent expected-goals share in 1,415 five-on-five minutes. Without Spurgeon, he has a minus-36 goal differential, 44.3 percent Corsi-for share and 44.8 percent expected-goals share in 1,553 five-on-five minutes.

“Our chemistry alone, I think people sleep on how good of a player Jared Spurgeon is,” Middleton said. “It’s kind of like him and (Jonas Brodin) are the same. You don’t appreciate them as players until you’re missing them. They’re just tremendous players. Jared especially — he’s the leader of the team. His voice carries a lot of weight in our dressing room, and you could feel that was missed in the time he was away.

“He’s just a great person, a great player, a great family. He’s someone who you need to have back in your lineup, and it’ll be tremendous when we do have him back.”

The good news is Spurgeon has been skating since the end of the season and says he anticipates being 100 percent by training camp.

Middleton said there’s a lot to be excited about over the next five years, especially after seeing how good Marat Khusnutdinov and Liam Ohgren were at the end of the season. He loves the core of the team, starting with Kirill Kaprizov and Joel Eriksson Ek, as well as the support pieces, like Marcus Foligno and Ryan Hartman, and additions like Yakov Trenin, signed to a four-year, $14 million contract Monday.

“I think it’s a great signing. He is hard to play against,” Middleton said. “He forechecks like an animal. He finishes every check. Great penalty kill. … I’ve never been on the power play, but I’ve watched him kill penalties. I think it’s a good pickup.”

Jake and his wife, Natalie, are expecting their first child in October. He anticipates staying in Minneapolis and not moving out to Edina with the rest of the families, though.

“I don’t think I’m (going to) Cake Eater country just yet,” he joked. “That’s not my speed yet. We’ll see. But not anytime soon.”

In the meantime, he’ll finish his trip with his dad to his sister’s house in B.C., then attend a wedding in Kelowna before riding back to Minnesota for the rest of the offseason. He’s training to have a big bounce-back year, plus there are likely more social-media videos coming with Brock Faber like the one the other day at Valleyfair.

Middleton-Faber social-media content is the gift that keeps on giving.

“I am awful with rides,” Middleton said. “I haven’t seen that video yet, but I’m sure there’s a few bloopers with me not looking well or a little white in the face. The Wild Thing (rollercoaster)? That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was gonna be. The first drop is the worst part. I won’t say it’s my favorite because none of them were, but it was a good time. I’m glad I did it.”

(Photo: David Berding / Getty Images)

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