Canadiens coach St. Louis is the right man for the job in front of him

Tim Micallef is joined by Hall of Famer and Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis who talks about how his journey and experience as a player have better prepared him to lead the Canadiens from behind the bench, and much more.

MONTREAL— Jeff Gorton called Martin St. Louis special and repeated it several times.

A week after firing Dominique Ducharme and deciding, with the help of general manager Kent Hughes, that St. Louis would be replacing him, the executive vice president of hockey operations sat across from me and provided a detailed, earnest explanation of what he was trying to build the Montreal Canadiens into on and off the ice and expressed that his new coach was at the core of that vision and the culture he and Hughes wanted to establish in order to not only once again become successful but to also be able to sustain success over the long-term.

“I just think Marty is just a special person,” Gorton said. “You meet a lot of people in this world. Some people you meet, you just know that whatever they do they're going to be successful. That’s Marty. He’s going to help with culture, the team, everything.”

Gorton knew then what many skeptics discovered about St. Louis over his 37 games behind the Canadiens’ bench from February to the end of April. He said he knew well before, actually, from when he was GM of the New York Rangers and tried to install St. Louis as coach of their AHL affiliate before St. Louis told him he wasn’t yet prepared to be away from his young family as much as he’d need to in order to meet the demands of the job.

And Hughes, who had spent a lot of time with St. Louis prior to both of them joining the organization, knew, too.

When I walked out of my interview with Gorton, I bumped into the GM and shared that I initially thought St. Louis — who was making the astronomical leap from the bantam bench to the one only 31 others have stood behind in Canadiens history — was being hired on an interim basis to buy the team time to do a much more extensive search in the off-season, when more established coaches who fit the unique criteria of having to communicate in French would be available.

Hughes shook his head.

“We could’ve continued with Dom and waited until the summer,” Hughes said. "But Marty wouldn’t have been available if we waited until then."

St. Louis was their man from the start and, on Wednesday, Gorton and Hughes announced he’d be their man for the next three seasons.

The man who turns 47 in 17 days is the right man for the job in front of him. He’s the one who, over a significant sample size, showed he had what it took to make both individuals and the team better; the one who turned around the team’s culture and established a way of playing that’s congruent with how management wants to play; the one who already showed that he can thrive in an environment where the emphasis is more on development than it is on winning; the one who appears poised to prove he’ll be the right man when expectations rise significantly from where they are now, with the team coming off a last-place finish in the standings.

“I think I’ll always have that pressure, my own internal pressure — I don’t like to lose,” St. Louis said via Zoom after his deal was announced. “But do I want to win in the short-term mindset and goals, so to speak, at the price of not developing the young guys that are going to help you win for years? No, I don’t want to risk that.

“I want to have the young guys — the prospects, the players that are here now—reach their full potential. Sometimes you’ve gotta put those guys on the ice and make them feel confident on the ice and (in the) short-term does that not help you win as many games? I don’t know, but I’m not going to go into the season and just think about I have to win every game at the price of not developing the young guys. I’m not doing that. I think if I develop the guys the way I know I can and have them reach their full potential, I think winning is just going to be a side effect of what we’re doing. And once you get that, I think you sustain success for the long-term.”

He put the emphasis on developing everyone — not just the young players — in his first half season and will continue to do so moving forward. It’s part of what earned him the universal buy-in he obtained and what will continue to help him earn it.

“I think we all appreciated his ability to understand what you are as an individual and how he could help you improve your game. That was special,” Canadiens alternate captain Brendan Gallagher said to me when we touched base Wednesday afternoon. “And it was different things for all of us. I talked to Josh Anderson quite a bit this year because, even if we’re completely different players, we play a similar style and the things he was talking to us about were similar. And then there was (star) players like Cole (Caufield) and (Nick Suzuki) Suzy, who he could relate to and talk to in certain ways. He works with you as an individual and always says, ‘You know, you’re a certain age, you’re not going to shoot that much harder, you’re not going to skate that much faster, but you can always improve your brain.’ He just worked at us thinking the game a little differently but always understanding what kind of players we are and working inside that.”

And St. Louis did it without a hint of arrogance.

He was an all-star player, a Stanley Cup champion, a Hart Trophy winner, the players’ MVP, an Olympic gold medallist and, eventually, a Hall of Famer. No one would’ve begrudged him for not only using all of that as the ultimate offset to his lack of coaching experience, but as an excuse to run a dictatorship.

Instead, St. Louis carried himself like someone who never forgot that before he was all those things he was the guy who no one believed could play in the NHL; the undrafted, undersized player who was cut from the Calgary Flames; a perceived lifetime minor leaguer; a player unlikely to get opportunity above the fourth line in the world’s best league. He took on his role, admirably, with humility.

“Show them, Marty,” St. Louis’ mother, France, always urged, and he obliged as a player.

St. Louis did the same thing as interim coach and will continue to do it now, even with job security in-hand.

“I don’t think I proved myself to be a good coach yet,” he said. “I think I feel that when I came into the league, I knew I had the ability to be a good player in this league but it took some time to prove to people that I could execute in this league, and I think as a coach I feel the same way. I think I have an experience and qualities that I think can make me a good coach, but I’m going to have to… My actions, the way I succeed will speak for itself.”

Gorton and Hughes clearly believe, and so do Montreal’s players.

They believe St. Louis is special, too.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find a single guy who isn’t happy and doesn’t want to come back and play for him or believe he was great coach in his short time with us,” said alternate captain Paul Byron via text. “He sees and thinks the game at one of the highest levels ever played, which was evident in his playing career. But what I’d say separates him from other great players who might not have had success coaching is his ability to communicate the way he sees the game to you. The way he can communicate and relate to almost any player really separates him from most coaches.

“Guys want to buy into his ideas and the culture he wants to establish. We can all see how much success he had as a player and it really feels like he’s trying to push each guy (to) be as successful as possible. He’s really able to grab your focus, attention and get a good feel of how the guys and the team are feeling on particular days. He makes coming to the rink fun every day, which is very hard to do in the NHL with the craziness of the schedule. He’s got a great feel for the pulse of the team.

"We have a young team, lots of prospects with great potential and the top pick this year. It’s really important to establish a winning culture, with winning habits day after day after day so that seasons like this past one don’t happen again. This team will get to the point where making the playoffs is the standard expected every year with the goal of winning a Stanley Cup much sooner than people think, and there is no better coach or person out there right now who can build that winning culture while also developing these young players to reach their full potential.”

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