Nathan Beaulieu has never played a game for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but still might be ready to claim a place in franchise history.
Mostly — no, completely — because he’s never pulled on a Penguins sweater for anything except a team photo.
That means Beaulieu is going to be one of the few NHL veterans, if not the only one, to leave the Penguins as a free agent after never skating so much as a shift for them.
The Penguins acquired Beaulieu from Winnipeg for a conditional seventh-round draft choice at the trade deadline not only because of the muscle he might have been able to add to their defense, but because he was on the Long-Term Injured list, and thus didn’t count against the salary-cap ceiling when it was in effect during the regular season.
The conditions for sending that draft pick to the Jets — that the Penguins advance to the 2022 Stanley Cup final and Beaulieu appear in at least 50 percent of the games — were not met, so the Penguins have retained it.
Beaulieu did, as expected, spend the rest of the regular season on the LTI list. Although he joined the team for practices, he never got into the lineup during their opening-round playoff series against the New York Rangers.
The two-year contract, which carried a $1.25 million cap hit, that he signed with the Jets in 2020 is expiring, and Beaulieu will be free to sign with any team when free agency begins next month.
The Penguins have given no indication about whether they’re interested in keeping him or, if so, how much they’re willing to spend to make it happen. Similarly, it’s not known whether Beaulieu has any particular interest in staying here.
To be sure, his future is not the most significant issue surrounding the Penguins’ defense corps this summer; this is nowhere near the magnitude of, say, whether Kris Letang decides to move on. Beaulieu is a depth defenseman whose history suggests he is unlikely to rise above the third pairing on a competitive team.
He had no goals, four assists and 25 penalty minutes in 24 games with the Jets in 2021-22, when he averaged just 10 minutes, 24 seconds of ice time per game.
Montreal claimed him in the first round of the 2011 draft (17th overall) after Beaulieu put up 37 goals and 115 assists in 233 games over four seasons with St. John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The offensive abilities he showed in junior never translated to the NHL, however, and Beaulieu has just 12 goals and 82 assists in 419 games at this level; his most productive season was 2016-17, when he had career-highs in goals (4), assists (24) and points (28) while playing for the Canadiens.
What Nathan Beaulieu, 29, can provide is muscle, a quality that’s in short supply on the Penguins’ blue line. He is 6-2, 200 pounds, and has lasted in the league, at least in part, because of his toughness.
He has a reputation for sticking up for teammates and Beaulieu’s willingness to physically challenge opponents around the net could be an asset for a unit that doesn’t consistently hit anyone who ventures near the Penguins’ crease.
Of course, none of that will matter if Ron Hextall brought him in strictly as a no-risk insurance policy had the Penguins been able to go on an extended playoff run. In that case, his career here effectively ended the instant Game 7 against the Rangers did.
But if management concludes that the Pittsburgh Penguins would benefit from what Beaulieu can provide, he just might get a chance to pull on that game sweater a few times, after all.