Canadiens betting on St. Louis to prove himself in first coaching venture

Interim Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis explains his strategy to give his best players more freedom to make reads on the ice, and not follow as much of a "system."

BROSSARD, Que.— When it was announced on Wednesday that Martin St. Louis was taking over from Dominique Ducharme as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, no one would have blamed you for thinking it was just some novelty stop-gap solution.

It would have been perfectly understandable if you looked at the near blank page that is St. Louis’s coaching resume—opening and closing the bench doors for his kid’s peewee team and consulting with his other son’s prep school coaches can’t count for all that much—and laughed.

It was pretty easy to assume he was only coming in because the Canadiens needed to make a change quickly, and he was available and willing — and it’s not as if they had a real opportunity to vet more legitimate candidates who are contracted to be coaching other teams through the end of the season.

If you thought this whole thing was merely a marketing ploy and a way to keep Canadiens fans engaged with a product that’s been mostly repulsive since the start of the season, we get it.

But if you still felt that way after watching executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, general manager Kent Hughes and St. Louis explain themselves for close to an hour on Thursday, you missed why this wasn’t just about change for the sake of change.

This was about Martin St. Louis specifically—the kid who grew up a diehard Canadiens fan; the man who lives and, in his words, “eats” hockey; the undrafted player who toiled in the minors and was rejected by the first NHL team he played for; the guy who, once upon a time, begged teams like the Canadiens to take a flier on him and was ignored; the guy who faced that doubt over and over again and quelled it by establishing himself in the NHL and ascending to superstardom in short order; the feisty, competitive, fearless leader; the Stanley Cup-winning, Hart Trophy-hoisting, gold medalist who’s plaque hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame; the man who believes he was destined to coach in this league.

“We’re trying to establish the culture that we would like to see,” said Hughes, “and he’s the embodiment of it.”

The GM has known St. Louis for over 40 years, going back to when he coached against him in midget hockey. Hughes scouted him when he was making his entry to the agent business. He got to know St. Louis well in representing his former Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Vincent Lecavalier, among other prolific Quebecois clients St. Louis was associated with.

More recently, Hughes and St. Louis have spent the years after St. Louis’s playing career sharing insights with each other on the game—on the phone, or even during couples nights with their wives—and they’ve had the pleasure of watching their kids play together for the University of Northeastern.

As things spiraled out of control around Ducharme, Hughes knew who to call.

He and Gorton could have promoted an internal candidate and waited to speak to other established ones after the season.

But they wanted St. Louis and began courting him roughly 10 days ago.

“We wouldn’t have brought him here if he didn’t have the qualities in a coach we were looking for,” Hughes said.

“A lot of people have bet against him," he said later. "I, for one, have chosen to bet on him, not against him, and I’m pretty sure he’ll make the doubters revisit it in time.”

Boy, did Marty show them at his introductory press conference.

It’s what St. Louis’s late mother repeated over and over to him as he approached each hurdle as a steppingstone to creating his playing legacy. “Show them, Marty,” she’d say, and he always obliged.

Well, St. Louis did again, passing this first test as coach of the Canadiens with flying colours.

A much bigger one lies ahead—not to turn this lost season around, but to make it actually count for something.

And it’s a lot clearer now than it was a day ago as to why St. Louis might ace it.

“I’ve been preparing for this for almost 10 years,” he said.

“I know I have zero experience behind the bench,” he continued, “but I have a lot of experience on the bench, in the room, on the ice. There’s not one player whom I can’t relate to, because I was a guy who played in the minors, on the fourth line, on the third line, in the top six and (as) an all-star. I really have a pulse for what these guys go through, and I know I can help them.”

He can’t possibly hurt them.

It’s not as if St. Louis can do worse than his predecessor. He’s taking over a team at the very bottom of the standings, a team with eight wins in 45 games, and he can’t sink them lower.

But again, this isn’t about what the Lavallois can’t do; it’s about what he can do.

To start with, there’s ample reason to believe St. Louis can light a fire under a group that desperately needs one right now. A group coming off five consecutive embarrassing losses in which it surrendered 33 goals—and a great deal of its pride. He was known for being able to do that as a player, and he clearly hasn’t changed.

“If you were in our room when he just spoke to the team, you would’ve had goosebumps, because there’s a certain vibe, there’s a certain energy,” Gorton said. “We should be all feeling it now. He wants this job. We all say interim, (but) he’s putting it on the line. He’s coming here, his whole life has been about, ‘I’ll show you.’ Our players felt that in his 10-minute conversation with them an hour ago. I felt it. I’ve always felt it about him. Kent feels that way. He’s somebody you want to be around in hockey. We all knew he was going to have success.

“I think it’s going to help everybody. There’s going to be an energy around the team that we need.”

St. Louis will also bring a unique perspective to the bench. One he delved into when he was asked about his system-versus-concept philosophy that he’s been developing over his decade preparing for this opportunity he said he’s always dreamed of.

“In systems I feel like you box players in to be in a certain spot, and sometimes you don’t allow them to make reads because of it,” St. Louis explained. “A concept is more playing with a little more instinct with ideas of how we want to be as a team. Now, there is structure inside concepts. In systems you can say structure, but in systems you box players into only certain things they can do. That was probably one of the things 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 they make a bad one than not making a read at all. And sometimes in systems, there’s not much reads. So, that’s why I’m more excited about, 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.”

Freedom is something else these players need right now.

“I want them not to think too much,” St. Louis said. “I want them to have air, to breathe…”

And he’ll provide a bit of levity, too, like he offered when he was asked about his unremarkable coaching CV.

“If there’s anything this team needs right now, it’s to have fun,” he said. “So, I know when they were peewees, they had a lot of fun, so I’m probably the most qualified guy right now.”

All jokes aside, if Hughes and Gorton didn’t think St. Louis was qualified, he wouldn’t be here right now. And the GM certainly wouldn’t have said it’ll be the interim coach’s decision as to whether or not to retain the assistant coaches beyond this season.

Hughes clearly believes St. Louis will do well enough to make that call down the line. And St. Louis is entirely confident he’ll prove Hughes right.

And if anyone thought he was just using this opportunity as a test drive of sorts, he quickly dismissed that notion.

“I’m not here to be a substitute teacher,” St. Louis said. “I’m here to show what I can do, and then we’ll see what happens this summer. I want to be here for a long time, and I’m going to prove I should be.”

What’s clear now is why it’s specifically him who’s getting that chance.

“It’s time for our team right now to start showing the hockey community, the fans of the Montreal Canadiens that we’re not going to roll over here,” said Hughes. “We understand that we’re not going to make the playoffs this year, but we’re not going to roll over. We want a competitive team, we want a team that brings culture. Marty’s the perfect embodiment of what we want to accomplish here—not just this season, but going forward.”

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