Late in training camp this month, Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton was asked a routine question: Which player in camp has most exceeded your expectations?
No one expected a specific answer. Colliton, not wanting to put too much pressure on one player or put down any others, frequently deflects that type of question.
But this time, he had a very specific response ready to go.
“We’re really happy with [Nicolas] Beaudin,” Colliton said. “He’s very noticeably taken a step [with] his training, his conditioning, his assertiveness on the ice, particularly away from the puck.
“The assertiveness defensively and ability to get stops, it’s been great to see. So we’re going to . . . give him the opportunity to continue to grow.”
To receive that kind of detailed shout-out was surely huge for Beaudin’s confidence.
Colliton later said he wanted to recognize him publicly to let him know how pleased the coaching staff was with his improvement.
Beaudin, 21, didn’t make the Hawks’ initial NHL roster at the end of camp, but he got a lot closer to it than expected, earning a spot on the taxi squad.
A few weeks later, with defenseman Adam Boqvist out with COVID-19, Beaudin has pushed his way into the lineup for consecutive games — Wednesday against the Predators and Friday against the Blue Jackets.
“It was just good to get back in a real game,” Beaudin said Friday. “It was my second game in the NHL, and it was like 10 months ago since I played my last game. Just fun to get back out there. . . . I did great, I played good defensively, [but] I think I can make more plays out there.”
Beaudin, alongside fellow 2021 breakout prospect Brandon Hagel, made his NHL debut in last season’s last regular-season game — March 11 against the Sharks.
But 2019-20, his first season as a pro, was challenging and even discouraging for the Quebec native.
In 59 AHL games, during which he had 15 points and a minus-5 rating, Beaudin mainly played on the third pairing without much special-teams time — an unusually small role for a young first-round pick.
Rockford coach Derek King was fair yet tough on him — King said in January, for example, that Beaudin had “matured at a good pace, just not as quick as some other guys.”
Beaudin’s stock was thus perceived, at least externally, as trending downward.
So the 5-11 defenseman took the criticism to heart and learned from his struggles, doubling down on his training during this long offseason.
He identified strength as an area he needed to improve and said he increased his weight from 172 pounds last year to 183 this year.
“I was just working a lot without the puck,” Beaudin said about his growth since last season. “They know [that] with the puck, I can make plays, and they’re not worried about that. So, for me, every practice I was working on one-on-one [situations], working on my gap. This summer, I got stronger, and my skating got better, too.”
Beaudin’s stock is no longer trending downward. He has clearly held his own in the limited sample size so far, rotating through numerous partners with the Hawks dressing seven defensemen but most often pairing with Nikita Zadorov.
And his self-belief and assertiveness with and without the puck, boosted by his offseason workouts and the support of the coaching staff, have factored into that early success.
“It’s about confidence,” he said. “My confidence is better, and I think that’s why I’m a better two-way defenseman right now.”