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Canadiens 2016 Top 25 Under 25: #4 Nathan Beaulieu

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He may have dropped a spot in the rankings, but Beaulieu will still be a key piece of the Habs’ defence corps this season.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Arizona Coyotes Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nathan Beaulieu has a skill set that most Montreal Canadiens fans have been very excited about since he was the team’s first-round pick in 2011, and the team has taken its time to move him into a regular role.

Last year was his second straight year of 64 NHL games played, but he would have sailed past that if not for injuries. He missed 10 games with a lower-body injury and his season ended prematurely after he broke his thumb on March 31 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Beaulieu set career highs in goals (two) and assists (17) last season, and also raised his average time on ice by over 1:30 per game.

Votes

Beaulieu was mostly slotted in at either third or fourth on the ballots. He had nine fourth-place votes and six nods for third. The others were two fifth- and two sixth-place votes. Beaulieu was actually tied for third when factoring in all 19 votes, but when we removed the high and low vote for those players, it resigned Beaulieu to fourth. The split between the average rank of Beaulieu and player #3 was a minuscule 0.18 (3.94 to 3.76) with that adjustment.

Top 25 Under 25 History

2011: #5 2012: #5 2013: #6 2014: #3 2015: #3

Beaulieu has now been in every spot in the T25U25 from positions three to six. He was fifth in 2011 and 2012, dropped to sixth in 2013 when he was passed by Brendan Gallagher, and moved up to third in 2014 and 2015 before dropping one spot this year to fourth.

Strengths

Beaulieu’s biggest strength is his play with the puck. His point totals don’t do justice to the way he has influenced the transition game in his NHL career to date.

He showed his talent when he made his first appearance in the 2014 Eastern Conference Semi-Final. In the place of Douglas Murray, Beaulieu launched a pass to Max Pacioretty who put in the goal.

He has the ability to drive the offence from the left side, and that is one of his biggest strengths along with his skating, which kind of goes hand in hand.

He looks like a player that should put up a lot more points than he has, and maybe that will come once he gets increased responsibilities. He is probably now the Habs best defenceman at controlling possession with his skating abilities, and it will be interesting to see if he will trust that part of his game more.

Beaulieu has been at his best when he has played with guys like P.K. Subban, Jeff Petry, and Mark Barberio. It seems that if his defence partner can keep up to his pace, he is at his most effective. And this despite playing against better competition with those players.

His game is better when he’s skating up and down the ice and playing a high-tempo game, and given more responsibilities than those of a bottom-pairing defender.

Weaknesses

On the opposite side of the coin, when Beaulieu has played with Alexei Emelin, Tom Gilbert, and Greg Pateryn — players more aligned with the defensive side of the game — his numbers crater. And before you think this means he is reliant on his partner’s skill, it’s not the case. Even against worse competition, he struggled when he has had to slow his game down and back up his partner on defence.

His production is also a point of concern. His possession skill will help him stick in the NHL, but his numbers will need to pick up. He only has three goals in his time with the Habs, but has been sporting horrific shooting percentages, and that part of his game should come around.

He’s also not great in his own zone. His skill on defence is merely serviceable, and he doesn’t seem to use his skating abilities to his advantage when trying to prevent opposition forwards from getting close to the net. He could be a strong asset at both ends of the ice if he can incorporate his skills into a defensive-zone strategy.

Despite his skill set, he also hasn’t been relied on to be on the power play except for some spot duty on the second unit. He has played mostly on his strong side under the Therrien regime’s board-play approach to the man-advantage, limitinging his ability to use his skills to their potential. That may be rectified with Kirk Muller taking over power-play coaching duties this season.

Projection

Beaulieu should start the season firmly in place in the Canadiens top four, and will likely play with either Shea Weber or Jeff Petry. That is likely where he will be at his best, as well.

He looks to be the best fit next to Weber. Using his skating abilities to get the puck into the offensive zone means that Weber will get ample opportunity to unleash his shot. Consider Beaulieu as the chauffeur getting Weber where he needs to be.

With Andrei Markov getting older, eventually he will need to play a lesser role in the Habs lineup, and without Subban to play with, it should open up time for Beaulieu to get an increased role in the Habs lineup in what will be his third full season at the NHL level.

Beaulieu is still only 23 years old, and has established himself as a solid NHL defenceman. At a very modest cap hit of $1 million this season, he will provide surplus value to the Canadiens regardless of his role. But it is in the team’s best interest to use him where he is best, and that is with increased responsibility.

He is a restricted free agent at the end of the year, and this season will play a key role into what kind of contract he will get going forward.