MONTREAL – This past season, Nathan Beaulieu made it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t be returning to the AHL ranks anytime soon.
Since making his professional debut two years ago after enjoying a stellar Junior career, Beaulieu’s road towards NHL stardom has included the natural highs and lows that typically come with the territory. After several stints with the big club over the last few seasons, including a call-up during the 2014 playoffs, the young defenseman earned a spot with the Canadiens following a solid showing at training camp last September.
The fact that he’d started the season in Montreal, however, didn’t guarantee him a full-time spot with the CH. He found that out first hand during the first quarter of the year, when he was sent down to Hamilton on two separate occasions. That was particularly tough for Beaulieu to swallow.
“When I went down [to the minors], I was miserable. I was angry. There was no one to blame but myself,” admitted Beaulieu, who played a career-high 64 games with the Canadiens in 2014-15 after playing just 17 games the year before. “I knew when I was coming back up that I was going to give them no option to send me back down.”
Beaulieu’s renewed sense of confidence, coupled with his consistent play in the NHL ranks, coincided with the arrival of Sergei Gonchar in November. While the veteran rearguard was brought in to solidify the defense corps, it was Beaulieu who, with the help of the Russian blue-liner, became a key figure on the Canadiens’ back end. The Strathroy, ON native went on to surpass both Gonchar and Mike Weaver on the depth chart, benefitting from their presence in more ways than one.
“They were huge. I had Weaves a little bit last year in the playoffs, and Gonch was so good for me this year and he taught me so much. I was very fortunate. It’s something I’ll definitely look back on as I get older that he definitely helped me out at the beginning of my career. It’s something I appreciate. He did a great job and he knows his hockey. He’s a smart man when it comes to the game,” mentioned Beaulieu, who scored his first career NHL goal on February 18 against the Ottawa Senators. “I thought I finally established myself as an NHLer. I feel like I’ve figured out the league now, and now it’s time for me to show more of my game and show what I can do now that I got my feet wet. It was a good year for me to break through. I’m happy with the way it went.”
A restricted free-agent as of July 1, the Canadiens’ first-round selection in 2011 still isn’t sure what type of contract offer he’ll receive in the coming weeks. He is certain, however, that if he’d like to make Montreal his hockey home for the foreseeable future, he’ll have to spend more time in the gym over the summer to keep up with the rigors of NHL life. Having learned that lesson the hard way in the opening round of the playoffs when he suffered a fractured sternum on a hit by Ottawa Senators star Erik Karlsson, the 22-year-old is ready to do everything conceivably possible during the offseason to ensure he’ll be prepared to deliver the goods in 2015-16.
“I want to get stronger. My body isn't big enough probably for the type of game I try to play,” concluded Beaulieu, who averaged 15:41 of ice time per game this past season, which ranked him seventh among Canadiens defensemen. “I want to be a guy who plays a lot of minutes, so strength is probably the biggest thing I want to work on.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Matt Cudzinowski.
Thriving under pressure
No place like Montreal
Putting things in perspective