Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new guy. As the 2011 NHL Entry Draft unfolded, something strange happened: the Canadiens, sitting with the 17th overall pick, watched as a guy viewed by many as a top 10 selection slipped into their fingers. There was no discernible reason for the fall: Nathan Beaulieu doesn't offer up many red flags as a prospect, having that rare distinction of having a solid basic skill set that should easily translate into professional hockey, as well as the smarts to potentially thrive in the show. While Canadiens fans may have been happy to see Louis Leblanc end up available when the Canadiens picked in 2009, it wasn't considered a real surprise. Beaulieu, on the other hand, caught most fans off guard.
Here at SB Nation, we conducted our own mock draft, and Beaulieu went 7th overall to the Winnipeg Jets. Oddly enough, the real life Jets took the selection we made for the Canadiens at #17: Mark Schiefele. I'd have made the Schiefele for Beaulieu trade before the draft and I'd still make it today. While Schiefele possesses a nice two-way ability down the middle, there's nothing quite like a smart, puck-moving defenseman who can make a perfect pass, be it from his defensive zone or diagonally through the box on the PP.
It's kind of an important job, and not an easy skill to find. The Canadiens have been blessed with Andrei Markov's passing for the past decade, but few on the team in that time period have even come close to matching him.
Beaulieu's story is getting to be well known. His father, Jacques, has been a coach in junior hockey circles for quite a while now, and Nathan grew up around the London Knights rink watching Rick Nash, Corey Perry and those powerhouse clubs of the early-to-mid 2000s. Jacques took the coaching gig in Saint John and as a result, the Ontario born Nathan ended up playing in the Q instead of the OHL. His dad was replaced by Gerard Gallant and Jacques went back to London, leaving Nathan behind on a team that, well... was stacked. After winning the Memorial Cup, Beaulieu was one of three Sea Dogs selected in the first round of the Entry Draft, and the team stands a strong chance of getting back to the Cup this year, especially if all three return.
Nathan is, by far, the highest debut on our list this year. He's already considered a Top 5 player by our panel, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that he has the potential to be the #1 player on this list in the future.
Strengths: Since I've already gushed about Beaulieu's passing ability, I figured it was time to look at his other qualities. Beaulieu is a strong skater, relying more on a lengthy stride and solid acceleration. It's not so much his speed on the ice, but his ability to get to the play in an efficient manner. Kirk Luedeke loved his gap control, stating his preference is for playing angles defensively rather than going for the big hit, but also lauding his ability to play a rugged game. Beaulieu's strength, as of now, is his offensive game: he can run a PP, makes smart decisions on pinching, and utilizes both a slap shot and wrist shot in order to generate chances for his team. And, by the way, he'll put the puck on your tape without you even realizing it.
Weaknesses: Right now, Beaulieu takes some knocks for his defensive game. TSN noted in their scouting report that his skating wasn't strong going backwards or pivoting. Chris Boucher consistently gave Beaulieu high marks on his scouting scorecard system, but noted that he needed to work on his crossovers. It was noted how he started last season off slowly before finishing with a strong middle and end to the regular season, and a great playoffs. In total, though, his offensive output didn't change from his previous season, and some question his upside as a result.
Future: Players like Beaulieu don't come along too often, and while he's still fairly raw as he's still definitely at the major junior level, there are way too many aspects to his overall game to ignore. It is why I voted for him at the #3 spot on this list, the highest of the panel. Beaulieu sees the game differently than most players, and he knows it. While there have been some comments about his strong character, there are just as many about his high confidence level. Beaulieu will have to learn when to take risks with his passes, but while he might give the puck away a few times, he probably won't be shy to try a stretch pass again.
Beaulieu will try and get into a few preseason games this year, but will be sent back to Saint John. His goal for the first half of the year is to build off his impressive showing at this summer's U20 World Junior training camp, and make the Canadian U20 team. He turns 19 on December 5, meaning this is his last chance to make the team. When that is over with, he'll return to Saint John to try and lead the Sea Dogs to a second straight QMJHL championship and another Memorial Cup experience. With Simon Despres turning professional, there is no question as to who the #1 D is on that team anymore.
Because he's a late 1992 birth date, Beaulieu can turn professional in 2012-13, and if he has a successful year (making the WJC team, long playoff run, high counting totals) he likely will. He's a bit lean at the moment, and will need to gain strength in order to compete at the level he's used to when he turns pro.
Another reason I'm high on his potential is every one of his more commonly noted faults seem fixable through mechanics and strength training: no one is saying he lacks skill or smarts. Beaulieu has the tools to become a special player.
For your enjoyment, a compilation video of Beaulieu's skill:
|#6: Louis Leblanc||#5: Nathan Beaulieu||#4: Lars Eller|