Canadiens Head Coach St. Louis Deserves Slack During Rebuild

It was officially a worse loss to the Minnesota Wild for the Montreal Canadiens. One week after the Habs lost 3-1 to the Wild at home, they dropped a 4-1 decision to the same team on the road on Nov. 1. However, despite the greater goal differential, the Canadiens carried play for longer stretches, even outshooting the Wild by four (compared to being outshot by four in the first game).

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So, for all intents and purposes, progress, at least in-game progress. Regardless of final scores or where the Canadiens finish in the standings, that should be the overall goal for head coach Martin St. Louis this 2022-23 season.

Martin St. Louis Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are obviously going to be bumps in the road. Considering how young the Habs are (26.2 on average, based on their opening-night roster), that’s to be expected. It’s easy to forget that goes for St. Louis too, as he was only hired less than a single calendar year ago, with this being his first coaching gig. So, there are going to be mistakes made on both sides of the bench.

St. Louis Challenges Kaprizov Goal

Take for example St. Louis’ decision to challenge Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov’s second goal of the latest game between the two teams, to make it 3-0 with just over five minutes left to go in the second period. Believing Marco Rossi handled the puck with a high stick to get it to his teammate, Kaprizov, St. Louis called for a review that, in retrospect, was clearly going to be inconclusive at best, going in the Wild’s favour. The result was a Habs penalty for delay of game, further putting the Habs at a disadvantage in their efforts to get back into the game, as it ate up valuable time on the clock, even if the Wild didn’t end up scoring on the ensuing power play.

Kirill Kaprizov Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This obviously isn’t about making excuses for St. Louis, even if he didn’t exactly have all the time in the world to decide whether or not to challenge it. It was a bad call, plain and simple. However, veteran coaches get challenges wrong all the time. So, it stands to reason St. Louis will make mistakes on occasion too.

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Looking at the big picture, with the Canadiens clearly rebuilding, it maybe wasn’t a mistake, though. No one’s suggesting St. Louis purposely made the wrong decision, only that “going for it” in such an instance should suit the Canadiens’ purposes perfectly fine, considering just what is at stake this season. At this point, it should go without saying, but it shouldn’t be a playoff spot. The Canadiens have other fish to fry in terms of priorities, and making the postseason simply doesn’t make the list.

St. Louis Has Separate Priorities

Of course, listening to St. Louis at the team’s annual golf tournament before training camp, you’d get a different idea. Keep in mind, after a last-place finish in 2021-22, few people want to hear how the Habs are likely on track for a second consecutive difficult season (potentially just for starters). St. Louis and his charges have to toe a specific party line, regardless of if they believe it or not, and, truth be told, there’s no reason to doubt the logical deduction everyone on the ice and just off it is trying their hardest to win. These are professionals and their job is to win, even if the deck is stacked against them, even if some of the decisions they make can cost them games.

Go back to the first game of the season, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. A separate opportunity for a goal challenge arose when William Nylander tied the game 3-3 late on a play that might have been offside (from ‘About Last Night: Habs start season on right foot with 4-3 win,’ Montreal Gazette, Oct. 13, 2022).

St. Louis opted not to challenge on that specific play, and it paid off, with Habs forward Josh Anderson scoring the go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal soon thereafter. However, even if St. Louis had decided to ask the referees to look at it, would it have been so bad?

You can certainly see why St. Louis didn’t take the risk under those specific circumstances. Maybe the challenge goes the Leafs’ way. Maybe they score on the power play and, instead of it being 3-2 Canadiens with a few minutes left to play, it’s 4-3 Leafs and Anderson never gets the opportunity to score his goal. That one call changes the perception of not just that one game but potentially the season to come.

St. Louis Set for Rough Ride?

All of a sudden, the Canadiens aren’t 1-0 and a pleasant surprise to analysts everywhere, having just knocked off a potential Stanley Cup contender in the Maple Leafs. They’re a team that gave up a late lead, destined to suffer through another disastrous season. And, if they don’t gain the confidence from that win, maybe they don’t win as many others as they have… even if that may be for the best, all things considered.

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All that to say, a lot rides on calls like these. However, even if St. Louis got the call against the Wild wrong, there are plenty of times he makes the right one, only for it to not get as much attention. Now, few if any are calling St. Louis out over the mistake against the Wild, just to be clear, but it’s still going to be a long season.

Martin St. Louis 2018 Hockey Hall Of Fame
Martin St. Louis – (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

There are inevitably going to be times when members of the media have their pitchforks raised in St. Louis’ direction. It’s happened before. It will again. On each occasion, it has been and will (probably) be unjustified. Just remember this season is more so a learning process than anything else. That goes for St. Louis too.