At one time, many Montreal Canadiens fans were worried the Habs would drop out of contention for the first-overall pick at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, playing under interim head coach Martin St. Louis. The concern was understandable but unjustified all the same… especially at this point in time.
A “pop” in quality of play had logically been expected after St. Louis replaced outgoing head coach Dominique Ducharme. To be fair, the bar was fairly low in that regard considering the Canadiens got routed 7-1 at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, leading to the coaching change. However, after three straight defeats to start St. Louis’ coaching career, the Habs first won two consecutive contests for the first time all year and eventually five straight in total.
Overall, the Habs are a respectable 10-9-4 under St. Louis. Remember, they had been 8-30-7 under Ducharme. So, it’s a stark improvement, but it’s key to put things in perspective, in that the Canadiens aren’t suddenly playing like a playoff team. They’re not. There’s still a long road back to respectability, with many holes in the lineup that need to be filled, at center for example, by general manager Kent Hughes (and executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton).
Canadiens Suddenly Struggling
As an illustration, the Canadiens are suddenly 1-3-2 in their last six. Granted, the one win impressively came against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they also lost fairly decisively to teams like the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, showing just how great the discrepancy is between the Habs and the league’s legitimate elite.
Now, there are admittedly a few caveats or maybe more accurately points in defense of the Canadiens here. For starters, this latest stretch coincides with the trade deadline, at which point Hughes obviously sold off talent, like forward Artturi Lehkonen and defensemen Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak. Even though goalie Jake Allen has been back in the lineup since mid-March, he’s unfortunately not Carey Price, and there’s only so much he can do playing behind a lineup shorthanded to an even greater extent after Hughes’ trades (on top of all of the Canadiens’ injuries).
Also of note, with exception to the team’s most recent loss, a 4-0 defeat to the Hurricanes, the Canadiens have at least been in their games at one point or another. They lost one game to the Panthers over the last six 4-3. The Habs also rattled off three straight goals to tie their other recent game against the Panthers 4-4, before ultimately losing 7-4. Against the New Jersey Devils, not only did the Canadiens come back from a 2-0 deficit, but Rem Pitlick scored the tying goal in the last minute.
And this “resilience” is obviously more than a recent phenomenon under St. Louis. They may have lost 8-4 to the Winnipeg Jets to start the month of March, but they had been down 4-0 in that game only to tie it at four apiece. These are simply efforts that had been lacking on the part of the Habs under Ducharme to start the season. In those cases, it was almost exclusively a case of the Canadiens just getting a bunch of bounces. That’s hardly sustainable.
Canadiens Climb Out of Quicksand
In effect, by hiring St. Louis, Hughes has enacted culture shift for the better, which is admittedly odd to say, since the Canadiens did reach the Stanley Cup Final last season. However, for a team that was under the gun to start the season, facing the absence of Price and “retirement” of Shea Weber, with a 2022 playoff berth a long shot even under the best of circumstances, a slow Canadiens start to the season was understandable, especially due to the disappointment of how the Final turned out.
Things just kept getting worse to historically bad levels, though. Kind of like quicksand, as a nod to The Replacements, a largely under-the-radar Keanu Reeves football movie from the turn of the century. Meanwhile, “the best of both worlds” in the headline is actually a reference to a critically acclaimed Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, in which Jean-Luc Picard gets “assimilated” by the Borg, a race of cybernetic droids seeking dominion over every living thing in the galaxy.
The specifics aren’t really important. It’s really just a way of saying, it got to the point where it seemed like the Canadiens were just going through the motions like automatons. Now, there’s been personality injected into the lineup through St. Louis. It’s ironic, because the Habs were supposedly following Ducharme’s system to a T, but it took the coaching change for the Habs to finally perform as a team, even if they are still losing more than they’re winning these days.
Realistically, with the healthy bodies the Habs have got, that was always going to be the case, though. Practically speaking, with the roster as a whole the way it is, it’s for the best, for a better chance at a high draft pick. With St. Louis as Canadiens head coach, even on an interim basis, Habs fans are getting the effort level they deserve and the best-possible results they need for more of a fruitful long-term future.
It really is the best of both worlds in other words, just minus the science-fiction element. Although, the Canadiens playing like one of the worst teams in history after reaching the Final mere months earlier was pretty out there as a concept. No longer. As long as they stay in it from game to game, there’s every reason to be optimistic about the future. If the Borg are coming eventually, chances are good they won’t be wearing Habs jerseys at least.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.