June 20, 2011

Memorial Cup champ Beaulieu could interest B's

By Kirk Luedeke

If the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs taught the Boston Bruins anything, it was the value of having skilled two-way defenders in the lineup. Saint John defenseman Nathan Beaulieu hoists the Memorial Cup. (photo: Getty)

As such, one option that GM Peter Chiarelli and his scouting staff are considering as the NHL Entry Draft rapidly approaches is Saint John Sea Dogs defenseman Nathan Beaulieu. The Strathroy, Ont., native is fresh off a Memorial Cup victory earned late last month with the best team in major junior hockey from start to finish.

He followed up the championship run with a solid showing at the NHL’s scouting combine in Toronto, even though he and his Sea Dogs teammates had no time to prepare for the physical testing portion.

“I had a lot of interviews the past couple of days, and most of the teams said not to worry about it and just work hard,” Beaulieu said after completing his testing. “It’s not necessarily how you score in the gym but how you play on the ice, so I think that was the biggest thing, and obviously you have to come in and work hard no matter what the situation is.”

With nice size at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and very good skating ability, the 18-year-old is rising on draft boards as the kind of player who has a lot of appeal for the NHL’s 30 teams. He is also the son of OHL Sarnia Sting head coach Jacques Beaulieu, most recently an assistant coach under Dale Hunter for the London Knights.

The elder Beaulieu was the former head coach of the Sea Dogs when the team drafted his son, but he was let go in favor of Gerard Gallant and returned to the Knights for his second stint before being hired by Sarnia in May.

“It’s been an exciting time for myself and my family,” Beaulieu said. “It’s been unbelievable -- the timing of my dad’s hiring, winning the Memorial Cup and having a chance to be drafted. It’s a lifelong dream for any hockey player and it’s great to know that after all the hard work, I’ll have a chance to become part of an NHL organization soon.”

He may not speak French, but Beaulieu has not looked out of place in the high-flying Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He’s shown some legitimate puck-moving skill and plays an edgy, physical game. When provoked, he showed a willingness to drop the gloves and isn’t a bad fighter when he gets going.

If there is a knock on Beaulieu’s game, it is that he may lack the instincts and vision to be a top-end offensive defender who can consistently generate points for his club.

“(Beaulieu) was so underrated so long by so many people that he's now become overrated,” said an NHL scout for an Eastern Conference team recently. “I love everything about him but the hockey sense, and that's a big concern."

The standout blueliner turned heads last summer while participating in the Team Canada World Junior Evaluation Camp in Calgary. Although he was not selected to the silver medal-winning squad at last winter’s tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., Beaulieu was lauded for his skill and poise. He appears to have an inside track to earning a spot on the 2012 team that will attempt to win Canada’s first gold medal since 2009.

“That did a lot for my confidence,” he said. “The coaches told me that I worked hard and it was tough decision for them (to cut me). They told me to go back to junior and work on some things this year and that I’d have a good chance next time. I feel I did that and am looking forward to trying again.”

Beaulieu does not have the dynamic upside of fellow draft eligible defenseman Ryan Murphy, who posted eight more assists this season (53) than Beaulieu had points, but he’s bigger and plays more of a well-rounded game. NHL scouts have also pointed to Beaulieu’s character and hockey intelligence as the son of a high-level coach as key attributes.

"(Beaulieu’s) such a smart, character kid,” said another NHL scout. “He's exactly the kind of player you want on your team. (He) has some real offensive potential but I keep going back to his character and the fact that he brings his best to any situation.”

Whether Beaulieu cracks the top 10 on Friday remains to be seen. He conducted interviews with 27 of 30 NHL teams and most recently returned from a pre-draft visit to Minnesota, who currently holds the 10th overall selection, but his rankings have been all over the map. He was Central Scouting’s fifth-best player on the list of North American skaters, but other scouting services have him lower. Red Line Report, for example, has Beaulieu as the 18th-ranked player in the 2011 NHL Draft Guide.

If the Bruins are looking for a mobile defenseman with some upside, then Beaulieu makes sense at ninth overall, but whether his name is called will depend more on whether someone like Murphy or high-scoring pivot Ryan Strome of the Niagara Ice Dogs falls to Boston.
Beaulieu’s potential ceiling doesn’t appear as high as the aforementioned pair

of prospects from the OHL, but he’s shown enough that in time, he could develop into one of the two best defenders in the 2011 class.

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com.