The upcoming NHL Expansion Draft has produced many questions but has also revealed many foregone conclusions among fans and media. For instance, many would agree it is certain that the Montreal Canadiens will elect to protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goaltender. When it comes to the defence, there is only one question to be answered. Jeff Petry must be protected, due to the no-movement clause in his contract and Shea Weber is a no-brainer, which leaves only the final spot to be contested. The fact that this is even up for debate is an interesting one, given that Nathan Beaulieu would have been considered a lock for protection, as recently as the start of the 2016-17 season.
Instead, with another disappointing season on the books for the Canadiens, the future of Beaulieu in a Canadiens uniform seems tenuous, at best. In fact, many fans and pundits will say that Beaulieu should absolutely be exposed, in favour of guarding one of Alexei Emelin, Brandon Davidson, or most likely, the pleasantly surprising Jordie Benn.
While many are quick to dismiss Beaulieu as a bust that the Canadiens should move on from, there is much to be said for why he should be the third defenceman protected by hockey’s most hallowed club.
Before presenting the case for protecting Beaulieu, though, it bears examining why he has so quickly fallen out of the favour of Habs’ faithful, at the tender age of 24. When Nathan Beaulieu was selected in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, he was seen as a mobile, puck-moving defenceman who would not only bring offence but also bring size and a degree of physicality to the Canadiens’ defence corps. He was projected as a #2-3 defenceman – a projection which persisted even at the start of the 2016-17 season. Entering this most recent campaign, Beaulieu was given a chance to pair up with Shea Weber on the Canadiens’ first defence pairing. Before long, though, former coach Michel Therrien exiled Beaulieu to the third pairing – a move that was not immediately refuted by Therrien’s successor, Claude Julien.
Many saw this demotion as a disappointment and a step back in Beaulieu’s development – and they would not be wrong. He has not been much of a point-producer and given his feeble point shot, likely never will be. Having said that, this reality should not constitute a failure – especially for a defenceman who is still very young and who enjoyed career highs in offensive output, despite his limited role.
Perhaps most damning to the defence of Beaulieu is the issue of discipline. He has had his share of off-ice shenanigans, including a father-son bar brawl, which is certainly not the type of thing the character-crazy Marc Bergevin takes lightly. On the ice, Beaulieu has been prone to the odd boneheaded decision, which has cost his team on a number of occasions. In summary, this is a man who still has much to learn.
To give up on this former first-rounder – let alone to lose him for nothing – could be a grave mistake for the Canadiens. Despite Beaulieu’s struggles, he possesses natural physical attributes that cannot be taught. He has good size, is an excellent skater and is capable of completing a beautiful first pass, when he’s on his game. For someone who isn’t known for offence, his point totals in 2016-17 as a third pairing defenceman are quite impressive.
The areas in which Beaulieu is lacking, are areas that can be corrected through teaching, mentorship and experience. With individuals like Shea Weber and Kirk Muller in the fold, it would be wise to give young Nathan more than one season of their tutelage.
Yes, Jordie Benn was an exceptional surprise for Montreal, but at age 30, the world has seen the very best of what he has to offer. There is no improvement forthcoming for the late-blooming, magnificently-bearded Benn. Beaulieu, on the other hand, still boasts tremendous upside. Also, should the Canadiens lose Benn to the expansion draft, he is not exactly such a rare piece that cannot be replaced – and besides, if Benn were exposed, there’s a good chance Vegas would snatch up Brandon Davidson anyway, meaning Jordie would remain a Hab.
Nathan Beaulieu is a young man with a bit of a wild side, but he’s not exactly Zach Kassian, when it comes to off-ice shenanigans. It was not too long ago that photos of a young Carey Price surfaced, with cigarettes hanging out of his mouth and the glaze of inebriation clouding his eyes. Now he is one of the game’s most stoic figures – a beacon of maturity and poise. Boys will be boys and more often than not, they grow out of their tomfoolerous ways.
The upside to Beaulieu’s wild side is the fact that it makes him a fearless competitor. He boasts a ton of pride, a strong desire to win and an animalistic sense of loyalty, when it comes to sticking up for his teammates.
Does all of this mean Beaulieu is a certainty to fulfill his potential? Of course not. However, to give up on a player with such a physical toolbox and with such great pedigree, at only 24 years of age, would simply be foolhardy. Look, it’s no secret that Montreal is not the best place for a player with a penchant for partying, but even if this is not the right fit for him, Beaulieu still carries a good amount of trade value and could still be a valuable asset for the club, even if it is not as a sweater-wearing member of the CH.
This is a simple question of asset management and at the end of the day, a 24 year-old, former first round selection, coming off career highs of production, must not be allowed to walk for nothing.