Everything about this season has been frustrating for Nathan Beaulieu.
Injury and illness have kept him out of the lineup more often than at any other point in his career. And when he has been on the ice, well, he's not contributing to the Buffalo Sabres blueline the way he intended to.
Beaulieu returned to the Sabres lineup Saturday after his latest injury, officially undisclosed but described as upper body, playing 14 minutes and 58 seconds, credited with one hit and one blocked shot in Buffalo's 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues in KeyBank Center.
The Sabres had Sunday off, giving Beaulieu another day for his body to rest and recover while he tries to quiet the frustration in his mind.
"It's been extremely challenging," Beaulieu said. "I mean I've never really experienced a year like this that I've been out almost as many games as I've played. I've been very fortunate to be in most games thus far in my career so it's frustrating. The mental part is just as hard as the physical part to stay in it. ... Mentally and physically it's challenging but you've got to find positives. I'd rather deal with it now than later on in my career."
The Sabres acquired Beaulieu over the summer in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens as new management looked for defensemen with more mobility and speed. The 25-year-old Beaulieu was coming off his best NHL season with 28 points (four goals, 24 assists) in 74 games for the Canadiens. He had a strong training camp and was ready to be part of the new-look Sabres defense.
"For him, it starts in our own end out, just his defensive reads and positioning and knowing who's around him and boxing out and doing a good job defensively," Sabres coach Phil Housley said of Beaulieu. "We all know what Nate brings offensively: his skating mobility, his puck mobility, being able to join in the rush, be part of our five-man offensive scheme. But I think it starts from there, just the simple reads and coverage and playing solid defensively."
But there wasn't much overall solid play for the Sabres that first month of the season. Then Beaulieu's problems started piling up.
He missed seven games from Oct. 21-Nov. 7 with an upper body injury. Back in the lineup for almost a month, he then was struck with the flu, missing 10 days and four games from Dec. 5-14 while also losing 10 pounds. He recovered from that only to get sick again and miss two games in January.
Back again, he played just one shift against the Flames in Calgary on Jan. 22 before taking exception to a knee-on-knee hit from Curtis Lazar. The two dropped the gloves and Beaulieu went down to the ice, face-first. He left the game, and the team, returning to Buffalo while the Sabres finished out a triumphant three-game western road trip.
"You've got to look at the big picture," Beaulieu said. "It's tough. When I had my first injury, OK there's still 60 games left. Then I miss 10 days and lose 10 pounds and OK there's still 50 games left. Then you get another injury and it's pushing 30 games and it's mentally really tough. I just want to focus on the games left. Hockey is all a groove. You've got to get into situations. You've got to get comfortable with your partner. You've got to be put into situations to succeed. Once I get back in there I feel like that will take care of itself."
The groove has been missing for Beaulieu most of the season. With the injuries and illnesses, he has played just 34 games and has four points (one goal, three assists). The criticism of his play has been sharp. And for the record, he's none too pleased with his performance either.
"It's been rocky," Beaulieu said of his performance this season. "I'm not going to say I've played my best hockey, that's for sure. With my injuries it's been tough. The biggest thing is you're not going to come back and play spectacular. You've got to get 10 games and you've got to get going and get into games get on a road trip and just put some games together. I haven't been able to do that, so my play hasn't really matched up to my expectations. I still know what I'm capable of doing. I haven't doubted myself once in my mind. I know what I can do in this league. Obviously it's frustrating not being able to fully showcase that. Hopefully when I'm feeling back to myself I can really take a big step forward because I know what I'm capable of."