One a team chock full of pleasant surprises in 2018-19, Sabres’ defenseman, Nathan Beaulieu has stood out as one of the most improved players on the roster. After arriving via trade with the Montreal Canadiens last offseason, the then 25-year-old blueliner struggled to cement a permanent role in the top-six.
By the end of the 2017-18 campaign, many fans (myself included) had him pegged as a potential waiver candidate for the following year. While he has spent some time as a healthy scratch this season, his continued competence both in the defensive zone, and as a puck-carrier will make it tough to keep him out of the lineup moving forward.
From a basic statistical standpoint, his six points through 19 games puts him on pace to surpass his pedestrian output from last season. In fact, at his current trajectory, he’s very close to matching his clip from the 2016-17 season (his final season with the Canadiens) where he set a career-high with 28 points (a campaign that helped convince Jason Botterill to part with a third-round pick in exchange for his services).
Unsurprisingly, his advanced statistics have improved significantly as well. Through the first 29 games of the season, he currently ranks second among Sabres defensemen (not including Lawrence Pilut’s three-game appearance) with a relative Corsi of 2.57-percent. Last season, his relative Corsi of .63-percent ranked sixth among his contemporaries on the Buffalo blue line.
On the surface, the reason for his statistical improvements are relatively obvious. With increased talent and depth on the back-end, Phil Housley’s unit has been much more apt to jump into the offensive rush. For a player like Beaulieu, who was lauded as an excellent (albeit inconsistent) puck-carrying transition player during his time in Montreal, his ability to do a little more “free-wheeling” has had a positive impact on his offensive numbers.
So far this season, his seemingly newfound ability to accurately judge the correct moments to jump into the rush has also been a breath of fresh air. Last season, there was apprehension in his game as the mental mistakes in the defensive zone continued to pile up. As an outlet passer, he often failed to identify the most optimal decisions with the puck on his stick, leading to groan-inducing unforced errors. So why the sudden change in his game (and perceived on-ice vision)?
For one, he’s playing with confidence. The hesitation in his game that was so painfully apparent last season has faded. That type of thing happens when the team is winning and a player is converting on nearly 19-percent of their shots-on-goal.
He’s also being deployed differently (again, a result of improved talent and depth on the blue line). His average ice-time of 14:24 per-game represents a reduction of more than 90 seconds from 2017-18 and his offensive zone-start ratio has experienced a small increase at 53.19. Only Casey Nelson has a higher ZSR among Sabres defensemen this season.
Simply put, he’s being asked to do less while being put in more advantageous situations. It’s one of the major factors in the team’s success in the early going. With more talent across the roster, Housley has the tools required to put individual players in a position to cultivate success. It’s a big part of the reason why it appears that his defensive corps is doing a better job of executing his system this season.
Here’s where things get interesting. With Pilut’s strong debut in blue-and-gold, he’s made himself rather difficult to return to Rochester. Unfortunately, the Sabres are currently flush with left-shot defensemen. There is a real possibility that he gets reassigned once Jake McCabe returns from injury (which is a travesty given how NHL-ready he appears to be). If the Sabres were to pursue a trade in order to clear a spot in the top-six for Pilut, Beaulieu’s strong play might put him into the conversation.
As it stands, the only two left-shot defensemen who the Sabres could feasibly consider dealing are Beaulieu, and Marco Scandella. It’s no secret that Scandella has struggled this year and no longer appears to be a fit for what the Sabres playing style has evolved into, but his market value is likely very low (or perhaps non-existent).
An intelligent NHL general manager could look at their respective metrics and easily determine that Beaulieu has been the superior player. Depending on the return, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Beaulieu’s strong play could have turned him into a tradeable asset, something he probably wasn’t at the conclusion of last season. This is all purely speculative, but interesting to consider nonetheless.
Another factor that will play a role is Beaulieu’s contract situation. At the end of the 2018-19 season, he is set to become a restricted free-agent. With players like Pilut and perhaps even Brandan Guhle slated for permanent roles with the big club next season, he may not be a player that the organization plans on extending, regardless of the improvements in his game. If that’s the case, trading him soon (while his value is still conceivably high), and allowing Pilut to fill his shoes might actually be the best option.
Either way, Beaulieu has increased in value as an asset, whether it be in a Sabres uniform or on the trade block. Quite the turnaround for a player who wasn’t seen as a viable NHL defenseman at this time last year.