Martin St. Louis was hired by the Montreal Canadiens as the interim head coach on Feb. 9. General manager Kent Hughes chose outside of the box instead of hiring another recycled NHL head coach, despite that St. Louis has no track record as a professional coach.
St. Louis’ Arrival in Montreal
When St. Louis arrived, there were legitimate questions about how his team would play, what his philosophy was, his approach as a coach. These were all unknowns to everyone other than those that interviewed him.
Before St. Louis’ arrival, the Canadiens had a woeful 8-30-7 record. That is eight wins in 45 games, the worst winning percentage in franchise history. When the organization made the coaching change, many joked that St. Louis had only ever coached at the Peewee (under 13 years old) level. However, the bar was set low for him as any improvement, even simply the ability to lose close games, would have been considered better than allowing the team to suffer through another 40 games of uninspired hockey.
Related: Canadiens Need to Stick to Rebuild Despite Recent Wins
Since his arrival, the team has made a 180-degree turn. St. Louis’ impact was immediate, and the Canadiens have gone 7-4 in his first 11 games and have been competitive in every contest. The team has looked different. They’ve been a more focused group, and they’ve been putting in the extra effort needed for a less skilled team to compete in the NHL.
The St. Louis Effect on the Canadiens
It is more than just being a fresh voice in the room. St. Louis commanded instant respect from the team based on his Hockey Hall of Fame career, but also, in his individualized approach to his players. He can often be seen providing feedback to his players on the bench after a shift during games. This approach has clearly been well received as the players have that spark in their game that was missing this season.
One major change to the team’s systems that highlights his approach can be seen on the power play.
Against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 5, this power play came on the heels of a disallowed goal. Instead of giving up, the team refocused. Then we see Nick Suzuki taking the pass at the top of the faceoff circle, turning, then having an open lane to walk into the high slot for an accurate shot. But that play is possible because of St. Louis’ use of Cole Caufield (who started the play). With Caufield playing his off-wing, he becomes a threat for a one-timer, which draws two defenders to him to cut off the cross-ice pass. That, in turn, opens space for Suzuki. If the Oilers don’t respect that shot, then Suzuki is open to a pass across to Caufield who has perhaps the most accurate shot on the Habs.
St. Louis’ approach to practice has also been a clear departure from the previous regime. His plan is to implement concepts and not systems.
“In systems, you box players in to only certain things they can do, that was probably one of the things that I hated the most as a player is playing in a system. I was a great player when I was allowed to make reads because the best players make the best reads. But if you take the reads out of the equation, those best players become average. So I want to make sure that I allow my best players to make reads and I’d rather them make a bad one than not making a read at all. And sometimes in systems there’s not much reads. So I’m more excited as a player playing in a concept than in a system, but there’s tons of structure in a concept. It’s just a little more freedom.”-Martin St. Louis (from ‘New Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis prefers concepts over systems,’ Montreal Gazette, 10 Feb 2022)
Instead of robotically practicing set plays for breakouts, transitional attacks or even offensive plays, St. Louis has instituted small area drills. These drills force players to read and react quickly to their opponents. This is the concept he is looking for; a focus on instinct, personal responsibility that harken back to the days when players played for fun.
Canadiens Should Remove the Interim Tag
While winning now may seem like a pyrrhic victory that will affect the final position of the first-round draft pick. But, it’s not that big an effect. Even if they finish 32nd overall, the Canadiens can only guarantee that they have a 25% chance of selecting first overall. In this draft, without any elite or generational talent available, losing one to three spots in the draft is a price worth paying to get players such as Suzuki and Caufield back on a positive development track.
His approach is focused on personal skills and offence, and anyone who has played at any level knows that playing offensive hockey is fun. His drills have everyone playing together, with and without the puck, making them a more cohesive unit on the ice to be able to provide support in situations when players lose their assignments or one-on-one battles. By managing each player individually and managing the expectations by incrementally making changes, he is providing the players with an approach that seems to be getting their attention.
St. Louis arrived in Montreal with his eyes wide open. He understands the unique demands of this market. Being from Quebec, he speaks French, which is also a necessity in this market. He has embraced his role and started a process of returning accountability to the lineup, something that his background as a Hockey Hall of Fame player gives him the credibility to do.
St. Louis had a plan of how to approach his new role. He has also evolved from his playing days, and instead of viewing the game from the lens of the time in which he played, he thinks the game in a modern way, embracing a style that fits the modern NHL and that Hughes wants installed. Most of all, his approach is geared towards individual development, something a team in a rebuild needs at all levels. He provides the Canadiens with the type of coach they need now, and he deserves to have the interim tag removed.