2017 Leafs Top Prospects: #36 Keaton Middleton

No matter what you think of Keaton Middleton as a prospect, it’s pretty fair to say that he’s had arguably the most unfair shake of any player in the system. Many were shocked with the stark contrast between the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Day 2 picks in 2015 and 2016, Middleton became the whipping boy poster child of the latter; an encapsulation of the decision to go with size over skill.

That’s, of course, not on him; he was just a teenaged kid looking to chase his dream of playing in the NHL, being selected by the team closest to home. He was caught in the crossfire nonetheless, though, and I do feel bad about that. All the same, though, he’s still a player to evaluate just like the rest of them, and as such, he ends up towards the lower end of the list for now.

Age 19 (February 10, 1998) Birthplace Stratford, Ontario
Pos Defence (LH) Drafted 2016 (Rd 4, Pick 101)
Vitals 6’5, 234lbs Acquired Via Draft

Again, the 2016 Draft was a much different beast than the year before it. While Toronto’s Day 2 picks in 2015 came in at 5’11, 5’10, 6’3, 5’11, 6’0, 5’10, 6’4, and 6’1, with only one player (Stephen Desrochers, now out of the organization) seen as a “defensive” type, Middleton’s year was a little bigger: 6’4, 6’0, 6’4, 5’10, 6’5, 6’2, 5’11, 6’5, and 6’0.

Now, size isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you gave me two equal prospects in every way except for their frames, I’d probably take the one who is more likely to run me over in a skating sprint. But often, being big as a young player can be deceiving; it can certainly be a leg-up against other, smaller teenagers, but once you get to the NHL and face peak conditioned, adult athletes, that running start you’ve been given looks a little closer to a warning track in length. Players lose their competitive advantage, and if they can’t fill in their frames with learned talents, they fall out of favour, or at least get skated around and scored on. This is especially the case for large players who don’t produce on their way up, which is one of the knocks on Middleton; he had just come off his second full OHL season with fewer than ten points.

15  2013-14  Huron Perth Lakers  AHMMPL 31 3 20 23 24
16  2014-15  Saginaw Spirit  OHL 61 2 7 9 58 3.6 -12
17  2015-16  Saginaw Spirit  OHL 66 1 6 7 66 2.6 -24
18  2016-17  Saginaw Spirit  OHL 64 4 14 18 48 6.9 8

To Middleton’s credit, he made a very respectable leap this year. Spending spread across the lineup but spending most of his time on a pair with Detroit Red Wings second-round pick and OHL rookie Filip Hronek, he still wasn’t incredibly involved in making offensive plays happen, but he doubled his career high in points. He was used in tough situations with other very good players to support him and did a relatively good job of making sure the goals stayed in his team’s favour, rather than the inverse. His numbers were by no means gaudy for a Draft+1 player, but they were far from embarrassing.

pGPSn pGPSs Exp. Success % Exp. P/82 Exp. Value
226 (7/31) 26 (10/31) 11.5% (23/31) 17.1 (30/31) 2.0 (25/31)

The above numbers are products of the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), created by Canucks Army to project a prospect’s odds of becoming an NHL regular. For a run-down on what each of these stats mean, head back to the introduction.

With that said, the projection models aren’t particularly kind to him. Players of his mould aren’t likely to make the leap into being full-time NHLers, particularly in today’s game, and the model sees the lowest offensive upside in him than just about any other player (Miro Aaltonen is lower, but some weird factors come into play there that are touched on in his bio).

From a qualitative perspective, of course, the idea of Keaton Middleton sounds ever so intriguing. The kid is the size of a military tank, he’s not afraid to use his body, he doesn’t mind dropping the gloves to stick up for himself or his teammates (shown to a fault above, when his ‘prove it’ scrap in last weekend’s rookie tournament led to an injury that kept him out of the second game), and many have lauded him for his qualities as a person; Saginaw acknowledged that midway through last season when they named him team captain.

That all sounds very much like a prototypical stay-at-home defenceman, I’m sure, so you won’t be surprised to hear that his weaknesses fit that stereotype as well. His skating still needs some work, as does his offensive mindset; in this Athletic article from January, Saginaw coach Spencer Carbery mentioned that the team has worked with Middleton to shift him from a dump-and-chase mindset to a puck-possession, breakout mould that requires him to improve his first pass, and that such strides were made this past season.

The Upcoming Year

Middleton will be returning to the OHL this season, and I think this will be a really interesting one to watch for him. Hronek is heading to Grand Rapids on a full-time basis this year, and CJ Garcia is off to University. This should set Keaton up for a big year minutes-wise, where he’ll be depended on to be not just a role player, but a top player on his team.

At the moment, though, he’s still practicing with the Marlies, as he recovers from his rookie tournament injury. The fact that it’s an upper-body ailment and that he was in a non-contact uniform is a bit concerning, so hopefully it’s not a longer-term setback.

Long-Term Outlook

Here’s the crazy thing: As much as I’m skeptical of Middleton’s long-term future, and as much as I still feel odd about how Toronto handled themselves on that draft day, I’m not fully ready to call game here.

The grandiose promise when these gigantic players get drafted, that they’ll either step in and survive or they’ll fill their bodies in with talent, almost never comes to fruition. Every so often, though, you get a guy that fits the bill, and if Middleton, an Early Birthday pick who had a noticeably improved season in his Draft+1 can credit some of it to applied skills and philosophical changes in on-ice decision making, then maybe there is some hope yet?

I still have my doubts that the end result is the NHL, and particularly not the Leafs. I’m not sure if they’re still super stressed about size by the time he’s ready to be a pro, and I don’t know if he’ll be able to get his skating ability up to speed with the team they appear to be envisioning. But if he continues to improve in his final year or two of junior, it wouldn’t shock me to see him string together an okay professional career. Heck, if he makes a strong enough leap this upcoming year, maybe this conversation becomes much more optimistic in a year from now. Who knows, really.

To see the other profiles in this year’s series, please reference the full list.

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