Although Nathan Beaulieu is only in his second season as a full-time NHL player, the time is quickly coming for GM Marc Bergevin to make a decision on what his future with the Habs will be.
Since being drafted in the first round back in 2011, Beaulieu has slowly progressed in his development with his offensive prowess from junior failing to really translate to the NHL level so far. This season, it was hoped that he’d be able to lock down a top four role but after starting the season alongside Shea Weber, he has been bumped back to the third pairing and isn’t exactly making a case to move back up any time soon either with some poor play in his own zone.
This comes after last season where he showed flashes of being a top four option but bad decision making and untimely mistakes kept him on the third pairing with regularity. At this point in his development, the question has to be asked – Is this Beaulieu’s realistic ceiling? Is he more of a #4/5 type of blueliner than a core piece moving forward?
From Bergevin’s perspective, he will need to make a decision on this fairly soon. While Beaulieu is signed at a team friendly $1 million cap hit, he’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season. If Bergevin has reservations about his long-term upside, he’s likely not going to want to commit a longer-term, bigger money deal to someone that’s more of a complementary player than a core one. In an era where it’s important to save as much money as possible for top players, teams are going cheaper on their bottom pairing, Montreal included when you consider the deals that Greg Pateryn, Mark Barberio, and Zach Redmond are all on. Beaulieu’s next contract will easily take him out of that range financially.
With Mikhail Sergachev presumably penciled in as the top lefty defenceman down the road (with Weber, Jeff Petry, and Noah Juulsen the likely top right shot options for several years), the question that Bergevin has to answer is does he think Beaulieu can be a full-time second pairing player (basically replacing Andrei Markov’s role this season)? If yes, then they should lock him up long-term and move forward from there.
If management doesn’t think that’s the case though, the time may be right to look at trading Beaulieu in the near future. Just because the Habs don’t see him as a sure fire top four player (in this scenario) doesn’t mean another team wouldn’t. Plus, with Beaulieu’s cheap contract and a lot of teams in cap trouble, he would be an asset on the trade market. Could he conceivably be a player to dangle for someone that the Habs would feel is a better fit on the left side defence moving forward? He certainly would be – and quite possibly could be the best option they could move in such a trade.
Theoretically speaking, this type of deal could be made in the offseason but at that point, Beaulieu’s contract is no longer an asset to a team up against the cap right now. That places a bit of a shorter timeline for Bergevin to work with, basically up until the trade deadline if the team isn’t sold on him as a core player moving forward and wants to move him for someone they feel can be.
I think there’s still a bit of room for improvement for him but he hasn’t shown the defensive zone awareness necessary to be a key defenceman moving forward and he hasn’t improved much in that area over the last couple of years. Many have assumed for a while that Beaulieu would be Markov’s replacement but that hope seems to be drifting further and further away. If the right deal is out there for a more proven top four blueliner and it takes Beaulieu to get that player, it’s a move that Bergevin should seriously consider.