It’s not often that a young blueliner, a full year before he’s eligible to be drafted, is hailed as the best defender on a powerhouse team in junior hockey. It’s even rarer when that defenseman shares the blue line with two NHL drafted blueliners, including one who was selected in the first round the summer before. But that is exactly the kind of praise that Nathan Beaulieu drew over a year ago as a 17-year-old with the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Born in December of 1992, the late birthday allowed Beaulieu to make the jump to junior hockey a year before most of the 2011 draft eligible players. Drafted 68th overall in the 4th round by the Saint John Sea Dogs in the 2008 QMJHL Entry Draft, the 15-year-old Beaulieu joined a team both coached and managed by his father Jacques and his rookie season was a definite learning process. Playing behind a number of veteran blueliners, he saw action in 49 games and finished with two goals and ten points. In four playoff matches, he was held without a point.
The 2009 off-season saw plenty of changes. Not only did Beaulieu experience a growth spurt, but his father was relieved of his duties by the Sea Dogs. Returning alone to Saint John to start the 2009-10 season, the younger Beaulieu could have been excused if his play took a step back or did not develop as hoped.
Sea Dogs assistant coach Greg Leland was part of Jacques Beaulieu’s staff and continued with the team as Mike Kelly and Gerard ‘Turk’ Gallant took over. He describes the situation as follows, "I’m sure it was very anxious times for Nathan at the beginning, not knowing Mike and Gerard and what the expectations were and how it was going to be with his dad gone, but they treated him fairly and they worked with him and wanted to see him succeed like they did for the rest of the players."
In fact, the Strathroy, Ontario native took a big step forward. In 66 games, he scored more goals than he had points in his rookie year, finishing with 12 goals and 45 points to come second on the team in defensive scoring. Sharing the defensive duties with Pittsburgh prospect Simon Despres and Vancouver draft pick Yann Sauve, a first and second round draft pick respectively, there were many nights when Beaulieu was thought to be the best defenseman on the ice. This was heady praise for the young blueliner as the Sea Dogs finished first in the league and embarked on a lengthy playoff run. In 21 post season matches, Beaulieu scored four goals and had 16 points, with Saint John losing out in the league final.
Generating plenty of buzz based on his play prior to his draft year, including gaining an invitation to Hockey Canada’s summer camp for World Junior candidate players, much was expected out of Beaulieu in the 2010-11 season. Starting the season slowly and focusing on rounding out his game, the rearguard did not take the expected jump in production as many hoped. In fact, his stat line was nearly identical to the previous year, with him tallying 12 goals and 45 points in 65 games, one fewer than his sophomore season’s output.
But any concerns that his development was plateaued were quickly silenced in the post season. Over the course of 19 playoff games, Beaulieu scored four goals and finished with 17 points to finish fifth on the team in scoring as the Sea Dogs captured their first league championship.
Moving to the Memorial Cup, Beaulieu was crucial to Saint John’s tournament championship with a goal and three points in four games to go along with being named to the tournament All-Star team.
Leland can hardly contain his pride when he talks about the strides that Beaulieu has made as a player over his three years with Saint John, specifically in his draft year. The assistant coach says, "the best thing I like about Nathan is he used to be a high-risk player last year in terms of with the puck and without the puck, he would take some chances but he’s really improved that area of his game this year and he’s certainly far less risky without the puck and he certainly makes a lot of better decisions defensively, in terms of when to pinch and not to pinch and just send it up into the neutral zone. That’s a part of his game that has really impressed me in how far it’s improved this year. He’s got the skating, he can shoot a puck really well, he handles the puck well when jumping on the rush and creates offense, that’s a gift that he has, but I really like the fact that he’s polishing his defensive game."
Kim Houston of the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau calls Beaulieu "a complete package in terms of his overall game" and applauds the strides that he took over the course of his draft year to improve in all aspects of his play. "What I see in him, I see a level of maturity that I didn’t see last year. I even saw it at the start of the year. I think now, he’s really playing a lot better defensively than what he did at the beginning of this year. Before and in last year, he’d get the puck and we all knew he could rush the puck and make things happen, but now he’s a lot smarter about when he goes and when he jumps up in the play, when he does, he makes sure it’s an opportunity to create something and that’s very positive for the team. I see a maturity in him and the defensive side of his game has really improved and I think that’s what the scouts are looking for."
Meanwhile, Chris Mooring, International Scouting Services’ chief QMJHL scout describes his draft year as being two separate sides of the coin separated by a strong performance at the CHL’s Top Prospects Game. As Mooring explains, "I expected more from him at the beginning of the year. After last year, where I thought he was their best defensemen in the second half and coming down the stretch and into the playoffs. That’s on a team with two guys that went late first, early second on the blue line, this kid, as an under-ager, late birthday, and their best defenseman coming down the stretch. And then this year he kind of started out flat. I didn’t see the same confidence in him, with the puck or without the puck. He was almost backing in on his goaltender too much, not playing as physical as he was the year before, not carrying the puck and creating the offense like he was the year before. This was at the beginning of this year. Then he went and played in that prospects game. Since he’s come back from the prospects game, I think he’s stepped up his game and showing more confidence.
Mooring continues by saying, "(Beaulieu is) a kid that’s developing a special skill set, with that skating, the hands, the puck control, the way he thinks the game offensively when he does have the confidence. He’s a force, so mobile and so skilled carrying the puck."
But the ISS scout also notes, "I still think he needs to step up his defensive play a little bit, his physical game. I don’t think he’s asserting himself as much as he maybe should."
Having grown again in the off-season prior to this season, Beaulieu measures up at around 6’2 and 190 pounds, but will need to continue to add strength and muscle to his frame to handle larger forwards.
Playing for a strong team like Saint John has afforded Beaulieu the freedom and opportunity to work on rounding out his game without being relied upon too heavily, as Leland explains, "Success is like a domino effect. When you are so deep, you can play six or seven D, sometimes when you’re not so deep, you have to overplay guys. We’re lucky in the sense that we have six guys on the backend and seven that we have a lot of confidence in, so we don’t have to play Nathan thirty minutes so we can keep him at every third shift, play 20 minutes and we can put four or five guys on the power play and use all six or seven on the PK. We were a little more worried (about the workload) last year, because he was younger and probably 20 pounds lighter and that’s the tough grind when you’re playing deep into the playoffs. But with that experience and the fact that he grew physically and is growing mentally, we’re not too worried about it this year at all."
Already an experienced and well polished defenseman, Leland hesitates to say that Beaulieu is ready to step into the NHL, if only because he feels that the player would be much better served with an additional year at the junior level. But the smooth-skating Beaulieu has unquestionable NHL potential, both in his skill and his pedigree and is expected to be selected in the first half of the first round on Friday night.