The Montreal Canadiens are approaching the 2016-17 season with more questions than answers.
Can Carey Price stay healthy? Will Alexander Radulov finally solve the Canadiens’ scoring issues? Will the defense core react positively or negatively with P.K. Subban now gone?
That last question might not be as significant as the health of former MVP Carey Price or whether the Canadiens have finally found a scoring top six forward but it’s the most interesting.
This offseason has largely been about P.K. Subban and the Montreal Canadiens. It’s sparked a debate if the Canadiens are better off with or without Subban. Many people, from armchair GMs all the way to National Hockey League members have tirelessly speculated on that topic and all have mixed opinions.
The fact is we won’t know how much the trade with Nashville for Shea Weber will affect the Canadiens until the puck drops for the 2016-17 season in October. What we do know however is that with Subban gone it’s time for others to breakout of the shadow of the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. With a player as public and as polarizing as P.K. was, it’s easy for the casual fan to forget who else was holding down the fort for the Canadiens.
The fact is that outside of P.K. Subban, the Montreal Canadiens have a very effective defense core. Andrei Markov has put in his whole career with the Canadiens and has always been an effective player. However entering the last year of his contract, this could very well be his last season with the Canadiens, or in the league at all. Jeff Petry, on the other hand, will be a staple for years to come. He is a stable third or fourth defenseman that the Canadiens have locked up for the foreseeable future.
Although there are others on the blue line with more experience and credibility like Petry and Markov, perhaps the most important player on the Montreal Canadiens’ back end, and maybe the most crucial piece to them taking the next step, is Nathan Beaulieu.
The 2015-16 season was Nathan Beaulieu’s first full season in a Canadiens jersey. He finished with 2 goals and 19 points in 64 games. I say first full season because in 2014-15 he spent eight games in the American Hockey League. Beaulieu’s NHL experience dates back to the 2012-13 where he appeared in 6 games.
For the better part of last year, Beaulieu was a 23-year-old defenseman trying to solidify his spot on an NHL roster. Finishing with 19 points in 64 games is no small accomplishment for a young defenseman, especially with the poor play and misfortunes of the team last year.
Beaulieu got better as the year went on until, like so many others, he was hurt near the end of the season which ultimately forced his 2015-16 campaign to end early. Let’s not kid ourselves, early on there were growing pains. At the beginning of the season when Beaulieu was paired with partners such as Tom Gilbert and Alexei Emelin, he was, for lack of a better term, terrible. They struggled to perform and many in the organization grew worrisome. Although it was alarming, coaches chalked it up as typical player development issues hoping he would turn things around. Luckily he did and made plenty of improvements, ones that make you excited for the potential of the young defenseman especially when he was paired with top Canadiens’ defensemen.
When paired with Subban, Petry and Markov, Beaulieu’s play evolved and you could really see the player he has the ability to be. He proved last year with added responsibility and a quality defense partner, Beaulieu has the ability to elevate his game.
He looked more and more confident as the games went on. He trusted and had enough confidence in himself to rush the puck, he was more involved on the power play and he became more responsible defensively. He also stepped up his physical game as he used his body a bit more and got into a few fights.
Overall, Beaulieu quietly made improvements and steps toward a bigger role on the Montreal Canadiens.
At this point in time, the P.K. Subban wound is still fresh in Montreal and it will likely stay that way until the 2016-17 season begins. Many fans don’t believe the talent on the roster can collectively fill his role. I agree that you can’t replace the flash and the electric offensive zone rushes but there are players on this team to fill other aspects of P.K.’s game that he left behind. No, you don’t necessarily have to trade for another defenseman, and I don’t think Bergevin will right away. I think he gives this group some time to see what they have and then assess the possibility of a trade.
So in saying that, with P.K. Subban gone and Shea Weber stepping in, Beaulieu makes the most sense to start the year alongside the former Nashville defenseman. Let me tell you why:
For one, with Weber’s ability to lock the zone down defensively, it gives Beaulieu the freedom to start the rush and set up in the offensive zone. Beaulieu is an offensive defenseman and the Canadiens are now lacking in that offensive rush category with the loss of Subban. I’m not saying he will turn into the next Subban, I’m saying he can fill some of the void that Subban left behind, and rushing the puck is one of them. It might not be as flashy as Subban would have done it but it will be effective.
Topic for a day in the near future: Make or break season for Nathan Beaulieu. He has to be the guy paired with Weber. He has to be capable.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) July 1, 2016
Also out of the current defensemen excluding the likes of possibly Sergachev, Beaulieu is the youngest. Who better to help mold a young defenseman than Shea Weber? That’s one of the reasons why they brought Weber over to the Canadiens. With both players feeding off of each other’s strengths and minimizing each other’s weaknesses, they could grow into a dynamic pair. It’s not as far-fetched as some fans may think.
Still don’t agree with me? Let’s look at it this way: Markov is older, slower and won’t be able to haul the big minutes that would be asked of him if he were in that position. Petry’s style of play is too similar to Weber’s in order for them to complement each other effectively. He’s a good option but they`re almost the same. Without trading for an experienced defenseman, that basically leaves the Habs with Beaulieu as the lone player fit to take on the role of Weber’s defense partner.
Nathan Beaulieu is ready to take the next step as a full-time NHL defenseman. Setting him up with a player like Shea Weber and giving him more freedom will be extremely risky but will ultimately help in his development. Again, I’m not saying he can replace what Subban did and I’m not comparing the two, but he can learn to play the role which will make the Montreal Canadiens better.
I do think the Habs will eventually (trade deadline) have to look for another defenseman but I think a trade for another top six forward is a higher priority right now. For example, if Sergachev makes the team the need disappears.
The beginning of the 2016-17 season will give the Canadiens and their fans an opportunity to see what Nathan Beaulieu can bring to the table and for everyone’s sake, let’s hope he embraces the potential opportunity.
Nick Guido is a Montreal Canadiens Contributor for The Hockey Writers. You can Follow him on Twitter @nickguidoTHW for his articles, opinions and general Habs talk.