Jacob Middleton has expanded his personal branding to his hockey sticks, but it's what he does with them that bears watching.
The sophomore defenceman is gradually cementing his draft stock while pulling down heavy minutes on a young Ottawa 67's team that has neither a 19-year-old nor an overage defenceman. Middleton has steadily cut down on his mistakes over the run of the season, havin the flashy stuff for his sticks, which are stamped with his Twitter username @MiddzClassy instead of the traditional surname.
"The Reebok rep asked me about it before the year," says Middleton, a 6-foot-2, 208-pound defender who is ranked 87th among domestic skaters by NHL Central Scoutin. "He knew I was big on using Twitter and he asked me if I'd like it on my CCM sticks. I said, 'you know what, it's going to be unique, no one else has it so I'll go for it."
Middleton was Ottawa's main return in a January 2013 blockbuster trade with the Owen Sound Attack for Cody Ceci, who's already up with the NHL's Ottawa Senators as a 20-year-old. The Stratford, Ont., native has now stepped into the 67's top pairing, which is atypical for a second-year player. Season-ending labrum surgery to Michael Vlajkov and a brain injury to Taylor Davis have left the 67's with one of the league's youngest rearguard corps. Middleton, who turned 18 on Jan. 2, is the group's second-most seasoned OHLer by virtue of his 71 games played.
"I think it's been handled pretty well by every defenceman," says Middleton, who has two goals and 15 points over 42 games. "There's not that guy who's been in the league for four years who would normally carry that load. I think we've done a pretty good job with what's been thrown at us."
Middleton has become an all-phases player for the 67's, seeing time on both special teams and generally relying on positioning in the defensive zone. He also showed some toughness during last week's CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game by getting in a scrap with the Niagara IceDogs' Aaron Haydon. One point of emphasis for the 18-year-old is improving his skating.
"That's something I've been working on a lot with Shean Donovan," he says, referring to the former NHLer who is a 67's assistant coach.
"I was late coming into the Top Prospects Game so I figured if I made a bang when I was out here it wouldn't hurt my resume," Middleton, who was an injury replacement for the event, quipped afterward.
The 67's, with 34 points through 45 games, are equidistant in the standings from the last Eastern Conference playoff berth and the Belleville Bulls in the OHL cellar. How Middleton and their young defencemen progress over the season's final third will help decide whether their young nucleus is able to get some playoff experience in the spring.
"I would say in the last six weeks, Jacob's continually gotten better," 67's coach-GM Chirs Byrne says. "Before he would have a couple good games, then a poor game. He's taken those bad games out and been very steady for us.
"There's no way of getting around the fact we're young back there," Byrne adds. "We have three first-year OHL defencemen and three second-year defencemen, none older than 18. we have growing pains sometimes but there's a ton of potential. [Troy Henley's also stepped up for us lately, [17-year-old] Jon Duchesne has played better. I like the group a lot. We like working with them. Hopefully over the back half of this season we see some good things."
1. Which NHL defenceman do you watch closely since his style of game is close to what you aspire to play?
"Keith Yandle. I'm really, really disappointed he's not on the American [Olympic] roster. He's a defenceman I really try to look up to. He's smart, he plays PK, he can play power play and just play the shutdown role."
2. Who is the most challenging forward whom you have faced in the Ontario Hockey League — and no copping out by saying it's Travis Konecny [the 67's first overall pick] during practice?
"Konecny would be there as the toughest one. Probably Jared McCann from Sault Ste. Marie. He's quick and he's got a hard shot. And [the London Knights'] Bo Horvat too, with the big body that he has and the skill that he brings."
3. Which teammate(s) do you credit for helping you adapt to the league?
"In Owen Sound, it was Nathan Chiarlitti. He was an overager who came in from Sarnia, I had a couple road trips where I roomed with him and he helped me while I was dealing with my injury [a high ankle sprain] ... in Ottawa, it was the older guys like Sean Monahan [who's now with the Calgary Flames] and Ryan Van Stralen who took me under their wing. That was really nice of them."
4. Trevor Jutzi, your bantam coach in Huron-Perth, was a big influence on you, but what made him an effective teacher?
"He was intense when necessary. He was fun to be around and at the same time, he was someone the players enjoyed working hard for. He had this way about him where he didn't have to pull teeth to get the guys to work hard. Everyone had fun doing what he asked."
5. Where is your favourite road rink in the OHL?
"The Budweiser Gardens [in London]. It's close to home for me and I have lots of family and friends there. It's so big it's like playing in an NHL rink."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.