Nathan Beaulieu gave the Montreal Canadiens great bang for their buck during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It might have been a glimpse of what kind of value he can provide in 2014-15.
Beaulieu played a shade over 75 minutes in the playoffs, but it could be argued those minutes were a big reason the Canadiens reached the Eastern Conference Final.
The morning of May 12, the Canadiens were facing a 3-2 second-round series deficit against the Boston Bruins when rumors began circulating that Montreal coach Michel Therrien would replace Douglas Murray with Beaulieu for Game 6 at Bell Centre.
With the season on the line, Therrien turned to a defenseman who to that point had 23 games of NHL experience. Beaulieu played 17 games with the Canadiens during the 2013-14 regular season and lived a largely sheltered existence, facing weak competition in limited minutes and being deployed in offensive- and neutral-zone situations whenever possible.
To say Therrien was rolling the dice by inserting Beaulieu into the lineup against the rival Bruins would be putting things mildly.
For Therrien, this was a leap of faith.
And it worked.
The Canadiens scored 25 seconds into Beaulieu's first NHL playoff shift, though he had nothing to do with Lars Eller's goal that gave Montreal a 1-0 lead at 2:11 of the first period in Game 6 against Boston. But Beaulieu had a lot to do with the goal that gave Montreal a 2-0 lead at 15:24 of the second, blocking a Dougie Hamilton point shot and flipping a prayer up the ice that bounced off Loui Eriksson right to Max Pacioretty to send him on a breakaway.
The play was made possible by Beaulieu's offensive instincts, a trait the Canadiens might count on more this season.
"It was a learning curve. I had a lot of fun with it," Beaulieu said at Canadiens development camp. "I didn't expect it to go in, so I tried to stay ready as much as I could. When I got the opportunity I tried to run with it. I had a lot of fun. The team, I jelled with them real well. Just to go through that experience at a young age is only going to help me in my career."
Beaulieu, 21, has every reason to believe he will benefit from that experience as early as October.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin jolted his dressing room prior to the opening of free agency by trading defenseman Josh Gorges to the Buffalo Sabres for a second-round pick at the 2016 NHL Draft. Though much of the motivation behind the move was shedding Gorges' $3.9 million salary for the next four seasons, a secondary reason was to open a spot on Montreal's blue line for either Beaulieu or fellow first-round pick Jarred Tinordi, 22.
"We have two young defensemen who are a left shot," Bergevin said July 1 to help explain the Gorges trade, "and at some time they need a place to play."
Most everyone assumed Bergevin was referring to Beaulieu and Tinordi. Everyone, apparently, except Beaulieu.
"Well, maybe I'm not one of them," Beaulieu said. "That's the way I've got to look at it. Who knows who he's talking about? I've just got to come into camp playing my game. Nothing's set in stone, there's a lot of things that can happen and I've got to control it and make the best of it."
Beaulieu's inclusion on the roster at development camp this week raised a few eyebrows, largely because Tinordi is not there. Some saw Beaulieu's presence as an indication the organization wants him to remain humble as he works to become a full-time NHL player.
Through a spokesman, the Canadiens pointed out that Tinordi is a year older than Beaulieu and has spent more time on Montreal's roster. The organization therefore felt the development camp would not benefit Tinordi, but Beaulieu had something to draw from it.
Beaulieu was not the least bit bothered to be in the Montreal suburbs as one of eight full-time professionals doing drills alongside 43 Canadiens draft picks and camp invitees.
"My training's gone so well so far this year, I was happy to come here and show what I've done so far and show there's lots of improvements to be made and I'm making a lot of steps forward," Beaulieu said. "Just to put it in [the Canadiens'] heads that I'm ready and I've got to make a big step."
The Canadiens are likely counting on either him or Tinordi to fill a spot on the left side of the third pair, probably alongside Mike Weaver, who was re-signed for one year and $1.75 million on July 1 after he was acquired from the Florida Panthers before the NHL Trade Deadline.
The top two defense pairs for the Canadiens will likely have Andrei Markov playing with restricted free agent P.K. Subban on the top unit and Alexei Emelin moving to his natural left side to play next to free-agent signing Tom Gilbert on the second pairing. Each of those units has a puck-mover with a more responsible, defensive type, which is what Markov is at this stage of his career.
If the Canadiens want to continue that trend, putting Beaulieu with Weaver makes more sense than using Tinordi on the third pair, making Beaulieu's fourth Montreal training camp this fall easily the most important of his career.
"There's always opportunities, there's always surprises at camp," Beaulieu said. "I'm just trying to be the guy that makes a difference out there, so if there is an opportunity I'm not going to let it slip past me."