The expectations were sky high for Nathan Beaulieu heading into the 2015-16 season. With Andrei Markov's impending decline upcoming, the hope was that Beaulieu would solidify himself as an indispensable member of the top four.
Beaulieu finished the season third among Habs defenders in scoring, with two goals and 17 assists, although it's worth noting that his time on the power play was limited to just 90 minutes this year.
While the general consensus is that 23-year-old didn't quite reach that lofty goal as a mainstay on the top two pairs, it has to be said that when the opportunity presented itself, Beaulieu played quite well against high-end competition.
In reality, it was a tale of two seasons for Beaulieu. He was first paired alongside Tom Gilbert, and throughout Montreal's historic start to the season they played ... terribly. They were just about the only negative aspect of the Habs' hot start.
Once he was paired with better defenders, Beaulieu's play immediately picked up, and that's quite apparent when you look at his rolling average Corsi-for percentage over the course of the season.
I marked his most common partners during certain time frames. As you can see, there's a stark contrast in results from his time with Gilbert, Alexei Emelin and Greg Pateryn compared to when he played alongside P.K. Subban, Mark Barberio, and Jeff Petry.
He seems to elevate his play with skilled partners, and vice versa with weaker ones. All in all, it led to a rather mediocre season in terms of shot-based metrics. Beaulieu ranked fifth on the team among defenders in Corsi-for percentage (50.93%), seventh in Scoring chances for (47.38%), seventh in High-danger chances for (48.58%), and sixth in Shots-for percentage (51.08%).
His offensive and defensive numbers become a lot more encouraging once you focus on his time in the top four.
So why did Beaulieu struggle while playing against weaker competition on the third pairing? Logically anyone that can survive top-four minutes should be able to dominate against third- and fourth-line players.
The first thing that comes to mind is that Beaulieu is a high-event player, and that he's at his best when he's driving the play alongside a partner that can keep up.
When his job is to dump the puck out of the defensive zone blindly, he quickly loses all value as a puck-moving defender. This would also explain why he struggled at times in the AHL under Sylvain Lefebvre's tutelage.
As we all know, usage is key, and in Beaulieu's case the numbers this season seem to suggest that he's more at home in a fast-paced style of play, rather than a collapsing, defence-first ideology. If the Habs hope to maximize his value, they may very well be best off keeping him in the top four. Yes, that means he will lose the puck on occasions, but that's par for the course when discussing puck-moving defenders.
Which brings us to the next question: where does Beaulieu fit next year?
As we touched upon earlier in the article, Markov is no spring chicken, and the ideal situation next year would see Beaulieu's ice time and responsibilities increase, all while alleviating Markov's workload.
He's been very good alongside Subban. Last season he only played 55 minutes with Montreal's best defender, but the two had a 55.4 CF% through their short stint together. Combine that with their 56.63 CF% this season, and it becomes clear that the two have chemistry while facing top competition. They also controlled 63% of the goals scored while on the ice; a nearly two-to-one pace. A longer look at the numbers reveals that Beaulieu has arguably been Subban's most complementary defensive partner in the last two seasons.
It's probably too early to declare Beaulieu's spot in the top-four as cemented, but it does seem like he's destined to play heavy minutes with the Habs.
His good play hasn't only come while he shared the ice with Subban. Beaulieu also put up fantastic numbers with Petry, again lending credence to the theory that Beaulieu's skill set is only valuable if he's playing a high-tempo possession game. He can hit, and he can fight, but the results speak for themselves when he's placed in an important puck-moving role on the blue line.
Once you factor in Beaulieu's incredibly reasonable cap hit of $1M for the upcoming season, it becomes impossible to ignore the possibility of having a very cheap, yet incredibly efficient player logging big minutes in Montreal's defence corps.
There's no guarantee that Beaulieu can play consistently great hockey in the top-four throughout the 2016-17 season, but all signs point to him having the right tool set to perform such a task. With the lack of quality defenders in the Habs' prospect pipeline, the young defender's usage becomes even more important for the organization moving forward.