Another season, another Montreal Canadiens head coach in Martin St. Louis. On the surface, that’s what it must look like to cynics, with the Habs having gone through three since the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
So, what’s different this time around, after St. Louis signed his three-year extension, thus removing the interim tag off his title? In a word, “expectations.”
Martin St. Louis vs. Dominique Ducharme
It was July 2021. The sun was shining. Birds were singing. Based on haphazard research conducted just this instant, Dua Lipa was apparently rocking the charts. Not to be outdone the Canadiens were one week removed from a Stanley Cup Final defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which, while decisive and heartbreaking, was still a reason for cautious optimism.
Objectively speaking though, obstacles to a playoff spot in 2022 were starting to pop up left, right and center. Regardless, the extension to which they signed St. Louis’ predecessor was justified in the sense that if not Dominique Ducharme, then who? For all intents and purposes, he had earned the title of head coach, arguably to a greater extent than St. Louis right now.
After all, Ducharme had just helped lead the underdog Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final. All St. Louis did was go 14-19-4 and finish in 32nd place, although there should be an asterisk beside that record considering the lineup (injuries) with which St. Louis was dealing and their 8-30-7 start (under Ducharme).
Neither coach had the benefit of either defenseman Shea Weber, who’s “retired,” or goalie Carey Price in net, but St. Louis obviously proved more adept at getting the Habs to compete on a consistent basis, even if evidenced only by the fact the Canadiens weren’t able to so much as string two wins in a row together under Ducharme. Soon after St. Louis was hired, the Habs actually won five.
Talking to the media to discuss his extension, St. Louis actually pointed to a specific game soon after the streak, a 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers as a moment at which he knew this was a job at which he could have fun. Of course, as he put it, it was only a matter of time because he loves hockey and he was coaching the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. How could he not?
Shifted Expectations Under Martin St. Louis
In the game, Rem Pitlick scored a late shorthanded goal to tie it and Cole Caufield scored the winner in overtime to earn the Habs two points. In effect, that resilience is in part what St. Louis said was his biggest source of pride regarding his accomplishments over his first half-season as coach: “I think I’m most proud of how I felt the guys were excited to come to the rink in a difficult season,” he said.
That culture shift was necessary, not just to get back to a winning mindset, but avoid what could have realistically ended up the worst season in Canadiens history. Ultimately, it all worked out, with the Canadiens getting the best of both worlds with St. Louis, i.e., the first-overall pick with a last-place finish, all the while showing more drive.
So, expectations aren’t exactly lowered. They’ve shifted. It’s no longer a priority to contend, which, logically, many might have assumed was the case after the Stanley Cup Final run. Now, it’s more so about building a winner than winning right now. In that sense, the Habs likely have the right man for the job.
True, the Canadiens could probably stand to dwell at the bottom of the standings for another season at least, in order to draft a generational talent like Connor Bedard. That would certainly put them on the right track. However, so would a slow-but-steady approach to development, with a player’s coach behind the bench.
To those Canadiens fans who are firmly believe against tanking, it’s clear St. Louis at least lacks the term in his vocabulary (even if it would be more so management and not the coaching staff that would be responsible). Meanwhile, to those fans who are concerned the Canadiens just gave up a shot at first overall next season by extending a coach intent on trying his hardest, you don’t need to worry all that much either.
There are still far too many holes in the Habs lineup for general manager Kent Hughes to address. The team is still far from competitive, even if, under St. Louis, that compete level is back. Ultimately, they had to sign someone. If not St. Louis, then who? Ducharme was similarly the only realistic candidate last summer, but St. Louis is the only logical coach for the next few seasons (at least). The extension is just right.
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.