As key as the recently-acquired Kevin Hayes will likely be for the Winnipeg Jets down the stretch and into the playoffs, it’s new defenseman Nathan Beaulieu that has the chance to make the biggest immediate impact on the team.
Beaulieu Thrust Into the Spotlight
Just prior to the Feb. 25 NHL Trade Deadline’s 3 p.m. (ET) cutoff, the Jets acquired Beaulieu from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a 2019 sixth-round pick.
The move was borne out of necessity. Earlier in the day, news broke that top-pairing blueliner Josh Morrissey would be out until at least April with an upper body injury he suffered on Feb. 24 against the Arizona Coyotes after colliding with Vinnie Hinostroza. Morrissey joined Joe Morrow, who was injured on Feb. 15 during a late third-period scrap with Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Calvert, and Dustin Byfuglien on the list of wounded Jets’ d-men.
With the Jets’ d-corp in shambles, head coach Paul Maurice thrust Beaulieu directly into the spotlight, placing him on the top pairing with Jacob Trouba for his squad’s Tuesday night battle with the Minnesota Wild. Talk about trial by fire.
Big opportunity for Nathan Beaulieu with Morrissey out until early April. Last hour acquisition yesterday by the #NHLJets.
— Rick Ralph (@RickRalphTSN) February 26, 2019
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Beaulieu said Tuesday. “I’ve stressed that I’ve wanted something like this over the past year… They gave me the opportunity. I just have to run with it… I’m just happy that I get to jump in a be a part of it.”
Maurice spoke about Beaulieu’s play style Tuesday as well, stating:
“He’s got some bite to his game. I’ve always liked that. In the nights we’ve played against him, he’s gotten one or two pretty good hits. I’m not suggesting that he runs around, but he’s got some bite and he closes the gap quick. He’s kind of a north defender. He’ll come into play to defend instead of giving ice to defend. So we like that quickness and we like that bite.” (from ‘Morrissey to miss at least a month; Hayes, Beaulieu set for Jets debut,’ The Winnipeg Sun, 02/26/19.)
Beaulieu Steady in Debut
The 2011 first-round pick and veteran of 315-career NHL games looked calm and cool in his Jets’ debut — he handled the pressure of playing with a brand new partner on a brand new team quite well.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) February 25, 2019
In Tuesday’s heart-breaking 3-2 loss to the Wild, Beaulieu logged 15:58, fired two shots on Devan Dubnyk, and dished out two hits. The 6-foot-2 Ontario product also moved the puck well and jumped up in the play a few times, picking good spots to do so.
“Nathan, I really liked his game. Strong, simple,” Maurice said of Beaulieu his post-game comments. “Simple, which kind of stood out tonight.”
Beaulieu Has Strengths, but Isn’t a Perfect Solution
Despite his positive first showing and the assets he undeniably possesses, Beaulieu is more suited to a third-pairing depth role than a top-pairing one. He’s not an equivalent to Morrissey, nor is he a panacea for the defensive woes that plagued the Jets through their trying February.
In a recent piece, Andrew Berkshire noted the strengths and weaknesses of Beaulieu’s game. On the plus side, he noted Beaulieu is a strong transition player who carries the puck into the neutral zone at a higher rate per 20 minutes of ice time than any Jets’ defenseman other than Morrissey.
“Those carry-out defensive zone exits are made more effective by Beaulieu being a very strong neutral-zone passer, something that seems to be a rarity on the Jets’ blue line,” Berkshire wrote. “Having a playmaker in the neutral zone such as Beaulieu should help the Jets’ change up their zone-entry scheme a bit and add more options there, as well.” (from ‘Jets’ smaller deadline deals could have significant impact,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 02/26/19.)
However, Berkshire also noted that Beaulieu struggles without the puck, noting the 26-year-old has allowed a higher rate of high-danger chances and passes to the slot per 20 minutes of ice time than any of the Jets’ defenseman this season.
Given Beaulieu’s tendencies, the Jets may have to roll three d-pairings to a greater extent to protect him from getting burned. That would throttle Trouba’s minutes. Trouba — inarguably the Jets’ best healthy defenseman — has averaged 22:36 this season, second only to Byfuglien. It will be interesting to see if that number sags in March.
Beaulieu also doesn’t have Morrissey’s offensive instincts: Morrissey’s averaged .345 points per game in his career (77 in 223) while Beaulieu’s averaged .241 (76 in 315.)
Beaulieu Auditioning for Future Work
Beaulieu’s been handed a huge opportunity to show he’s a capable contributor, and will definitely have the motivation to make good.
He was frequently scratched by the Sabres this season. Prior to his Jets’ debut, he’d appeared in just five games since the new year and 30 on the season. In mid-January, his agent Kent Hughes stated that if his client didn’t get an increased role, he’d prefer to be traded. That wish has been granted.
The Jets obviously know Beaulieu’s not in the same echelon as Morrissey, and know he’s not a true top-four d-man. However, they need him to play a sturdy, responsible game and help the defense survive until reinforcements arrive.
If he can show his worth and fight the good fight, it’s not inconceivable that he could stay in the lineup even when Morrow is ready to return. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that Maurice could opt to go with the more experienced Beaulieu over rookie Sami Niku in the playoffs.
However, the focus should not be on whether Beaulieu can force the Jets to keep him in the lineup upon Morrissey and Morrow’s return. Rather, it should be squarely on his play with Trouba through what will be a tough March for the struggling Jets. They are just 3-6-1 in their past 10 and their schedule looks like a murderer’s row from here on out — their next eight games are all against teams in playoff positions.