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2016-17 Canadiens Season Review: Nathan Beaulieu’s roller-coaster year

It was a year of career highs for the young defenceman, but finished on a low.

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens - Game Two Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

With the team’s top puck-moving defenceman traded away before the season began, 2016-17 was a great opportunity for Nathan Beaulieu to show what he could do in a top-four role.

The added responsilibities from his automatic promotion to one of the team’s top blue-liners not only resulted in a career high in games played (74), but also included increased time on special teams, playing the most minutes on the power play and penaly kill in his NHL tenure.

He made the most of his man-advantage time, tying for second in power-play points among defencemen, matching Andrei Markov’s 12 in significantly less time. His 5.35 power-play points per 60 minutes was the top mark on the team.

Jeff Petry was the only defenceman to see fewer scoring chances against per 60 minutes of short-handed ice time. When factoring in the quality of the shots allowed, only Max Pacioretty had a lower expected-goals-against rate when trying to survive a two-minute penalty. Those numbers can partially be explained by going up mostly against the second wave of the opposition as Shea Weber and Alexei Emelin took the bulk of the time, but the numbers are impressive nonetheless.

The issues for Beaulieu came with the teams engaged in the most dynamic style of play at five-on-five. When tasked with focusing solely on either offence or defence on special teams, he fared very well, but when he had to make decisions on when to carry or advance the puck, or to be aggressive or make a safer play, that’s when things began to break down.

There seemed to be at least one ill-timed giveaway or confusing decision with the puck per night, and the result was a gradual drop down the lineup, going from time on the top duo to finishing the year as a third-pairing defender in a limited role.

He ended the season last among the Canadiens’ regular defencemen in Corsi-for percentage (50.3%) and scoring-chances-for percentage (51.0%). He still had an overall positive impact, but on what was a strong possession team for the majority of the year, it points to an inability to keep pace with the system(s) the Habs employed.

The reason for those team-low values was the amount of shot attempts and scoring chances he gave up. He allowed nearly one attempt on goal per minute of even-strength time he played this season, with 8.57 scoring chances for the opposition in an average 60-minute sample.

The playoff series versus the New York Rangers proved even more difficult, as he was the only Habs defenceman with a negative shot-attempt differential. He had a scoring-chances-for percentage of just 31.6%, which wasn’t just the lowest on the team, but ranks as the fourth-worst among all defencemen who have played in the post-season. That inability to contain the opposition was likely the main contributing factor to him being left on the sidelines for Game Six.

Despite the tough showing in several areas, Beaulieu did record a career high in points with 28, and was one of the few options who had the ability to both skate and move the puck on the back end.

The future

Turning 25 in December of this year, you wonder how much more time he’ll have with the team to prove he can turn his promising potential into actual performance. The recent signing of Jakub Jerabek, who has a similar puck-moving game, may suggest that Marc Bergevin is preparing for a future without the Habs’ last first-round draft pick before his tenure began.

As a restricted free agent, normally the team would have quite a bit of control over his future, but the expansion draft for the new Vegas Golden Knights franchise changes those plans this year. Vegas can negotiate with any free agents — both restricted and unrestricted — before the new season officially begins on July 1.

Beaulieu could be precisely the type of low-cost, high-reward player the Knights are looking to add in their inaugural season. They probably won’t be looking to challenge for a Stanley Cup next year as the Canadiens will hope to be, and can afford to let their young players make mistakes and develop as the season goes along.

If the new club does decide that Beaulieu is the most enticing asset available to them from the Canadiens’ list of available personnel, or wait for the exclusive negotiation period ahead of July 1, the Habs would get nothing in return for a player they hoped could fill a top-four role, and may still have the ability to do so. With that possibility looming, Bergevin may need to get proactive and move his blue-liner for something in return before the end of June.


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