Nathan Beaulieu is not Montreal’s best defenceman. Nor is he the most offensively or defensively gifted on the team. However, his contiuned development as a player is key to the future of the Montreal Canadiens defence corps. PK Subban and Jeff Petry are in their primes but Andrei Markov is slowing down. Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert aren’t franchise defencemen by any stretch while Greg Pateryn is best suited as a bottom pairing player. Beaulieu has a lot of talent and has evolved into a top four defenceman with more to give.
How Important is Nathan Beaulieu?
Other than Subban, Beaulieu has the most upside of Montreal’s younger defencemen. In the prospect pool, most of the defencemen don’t have top four upside. Noah Juulsen of the WHL’s Everett Silvertips is the lone exception but the 18-year-old is still several years away from the NHL roster while Brett Lernout, who is currently in the AHL, has performed well since being drafted. Jarred Tinordi is the question mark as he hasn’t played a game for Montreal this season, spending it in mostly in the press box as a healthy scratch. Darren Dietz, Dalton Thrower and Morgan Ellis have had their struggles since turning pro as they have either been plagued by inconsistency or injuries
In terms of physical tools, Beaulieu has very few weaknesses. He has decent size at 6′ 2″ and 205 LBS and is arguably Montreal’s best skater on the back end. Offensively, that part of his game has grown this season as he has bested his career high with 10 points in 30 games after having nine in 64 last year. His defensive game has improved dramatically and he has proven to be a good possession player. He started the season on the third pairing with Tom Gilbert but his game got better when he moved up alongside Petry on the second pairing when Emelin went down with an injury. Even Petry’s game benefited from playing alongside the talented Beaulieu.
What he brings to the table
The Habs aren’t the most physical team in the league and there isn’t a fighter on this team after the summer trade of Brandon Prust. However, Beaulieu has developed a penchant for standing for his teammates whether it’s a shove and chirping a player after the whistle or dropping the gloves. His most recent bout was against Columbus Blue Jackets’ captain Nick Foligno, who kneed Habs forward Tomas Fleischmann without a penalty and Beaulieu stepped in to defend his teammate.
The biggest thing Beaulieu needs is more minutes and trust from the coaching staff. The team is better off when he plays second pairing minutes instead of Emelin. He has taken more reps on the power play this season as his vision and passing ability make him a valuable asset. His minutes fluctuate game to game as Habs head coach Michel Therrien has given Beaulieu the tough love treatment at times, not unlike what he did with Subban. His decision to scratch Beaulieu from a recent game against Detroit due to “consistency” issues was met with confusion and ire from fans and the media. However, Beaulieu would respond with his best game of the season against Ottawa as he was a force at both ends of the ice.
"Nathan Beaulieu was the best player on the ice tonight. " – Pacioretty.
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) December 13, 2015
Down the road
As Markov ages out, the Habs need a top pairing partner for Subban and Beaulieu is the most logical choice to fill that role. By the time Markov is ready to retire, Beaulieu will be in his prime and hopefully ready to step up into that role. He has all the tools to succeed and has progressed nicely each season. Going into the playoffs, Beaulieu will need to step up his play further if Markov struggles with the pace of playoff hockey again. He is an important member of the Montreal Canadiens now but will become more crucial as he matures.