After a strong showing in the 2013-14 playoffs and the shedding of Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon, many expected that Nathan Beaulieu was in Montreal to stay.
Beaulieu made the team out of camp, and then began a long and frustrating five months that saw him called up, sent down, and at times a healthy scratch. There was even a truly bewildering game where he played wing on the fourth line for a mercifully brief period of time. There were knocks on his attitude, concerns about his defensive game, and likely an element of cap management in play, before he was called up for good in February.
Whether Sergei Gonchar's influence or his time in the AHL straightened him out, Beaulieu's role eventually stabilized, he averaged around 14 minutes a game, and earned himself a great deal of admiration when he in defence of his mentor.
While most of Beaulieu's season was frustrating overall, and disappointing on the offensive side of things, the focus on defence and the overall quality of his game show that the Habs have a potential top four defenceman on their hands.
In his 64 games with the team, he averaged 14.25 minutes of ice time, often playing behind Alexei Emelin despite his superior numbers. In terms of time on ice per game, Beaulieu finished seventh behind P.K. Subban, Jeff Petry, Andrei Markov, Emelin, Tom Gilbert, and Gonchar. At even strength, his 48.92 CF% put him behind only four defencemen: Subban, Greg Pateryn, Markov and Jarred Tinordi. Of course, Tinordi and Pateryn played fewer than 20 games.
2014-15 10-game average Corsi-for percentage with Beaulieu on the ice (blue line) compared to when he was not (orange line). Score-adjusted five-on-five data from WAR On Ice. Charts created by Spencer Mann.
His shot differential was a solid +46, and though he only had one goal and nine assists, he was on for 31 goals for and only 23 against. Moreover, as Justin pointed out in his preview of Markov, Beaulieu led all Habs defencemen in short-handed unblocked shot attempts against, with only 48.79 Fenwick against per 60.
Beaulieu struggled mightily offensively in 2014-15, a surprise for such an offensively gifted defenceman. In his eight games in Hamilton, he collected a goal and two assists, generally playing first-pairing minutes. However, with the overall quality of the rest of his game, the goals will surely come.
He also had a decent, albeit goalless, playoff performance before the hit from Erik Karlsson fractured his sternum and took him out for seven games.
With a new and incredibly team-friendly two-year contract under his belt, Beaulieu is poised to prove to the team just why they should give him big money and big minutes in the future. As one of the team's best defencemen on the left side, and withbeginning to show his age, it is entirely possible that we see the 22-year-old starting to take on more special teams assignments, and bigger minutes, possibly with the likes of Subban or Petry.
Additionally, Beaulieu's puck-handling abilities, speed and defensive awareness should make him a positive influence on the Canadiens' struggling power play, as well as allow him to take on more short-handed minutes. This would be huge for a team that is going to need to both take pressure off Markov, and improve its power play performance.
An expanded role and a season spent consistently playing regular minutes should see Beaulieu's stats improve and we should see him cement his position in the Canadiens' top four.
All in all, 2015-16 should be an exciting one for Beaulieu.