As Canadiens keep losing, St. Louis faces big challenge in developing as head coach

Mattias Ekholm had a goal and an assist in part of a three-goal first period and Nino Niederritter added three assists as the Nashville Predators defeated the Montreal Canadiens 6-3.

Let’s not pretend sequences like these are good for a team’s development.

That a six-game losing streak, in which you get outscored by a total of 32-11, allow the game’s first goal within the first five minutes habitually, and trail by at least three going to the majority of third periods, is a stone that has to be stepped on in order for a young team to learn how to win consistently. That this ugly run provides the Montreal Canadiens with anything but a blueprint for exactly how they don’t want to play.

We promise you they weren’t hoping for this to happen at any point this season, even if they knew it likely would. We assure you the last thing they wanted to do—coming into Tuesday’s game against the Nashville Predators—was follow up 9-2 and 7-2 losses to close out 2022 with a 6-3 loss to start 2023.

No, this team won’t make some sort of astronomical leap from this.

But Martin St. Louis can.

This is the biggest development opportunity the Hall-of-Fame player turned coach has had since taking over the Canadiens’ bench in February of 2022, and that’s saying something considering he made that jump without any professional experience—and from all the way down at the bantam level.

Through the majority of his tenure, St. Louis had the Canadiens defying what anyone and everyone would consider to be menial expectations but defying them nonetheless. It’s a testament to the work that he’s done that they haven’t looked as bad as they have recently at any other point over the last 11 months.

But the tide has turned, and St. Louis has to find a way to push back against it, even if most Canadiens fans would like to see their team sink further into the abyss, closer and closer to better chances of winning the draft lottery to add a generational talent in Connor Bedard.

Losing like this isn’t good for anyone, though, and that was made clear under St. Louis’ predecessor less than a year ago.

He’s got to find a way to restore the competitiveness the Canadiens displayed in the back half of last season and through two-thirds of the first half of this one in response to the jolt he gave them. He had them playing free and confidently, with pride and attention to detail, and those things can’t continue to slip further from grasp if the team is going to progress in its stated goal of development.

St. Louis isn’t facing the challenge alone. He and assistant coaches Alex Burrows, Trevor Letowski and Stephane Robidas, who have 3600 games of NHL playing experience but just 315 games of NHL coaching experience between them, must find solutions together that will serve them once this team is actually expected to compete.

They have to be treating the situation they find themselves in right now as a simulation for when they arrive at that point. The pressure might not be on them to do so, but it’ll be essential for them to know how to deal with a stint like this when it is.

St. Louis and his assistants pressed buttons ahead of Tuesday’s game. They’ve reportedly pushed the Canadiens through a gruelling practice after New Year’s Day off, scratched goal-less, $3.4-million-earning Joel Armia and promoted hard-working, NHL fringe player Anthony Richard to the second line. They got something different out of the team, even if the score line betrayed that notion.

He told reporters in Nashville the Canadiens moved the puck better out of their own end, transitioned to offence better and had more controlled entries to offensive zone than they have in recent games. That was reflected in the 49 shot attempts they generated, the 27 shots on net they had, the 25 scoring chances they produced and scoring three goals for the first time since they began this road trip with a 3-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes.

But St. Louis knows he’ll have major work to do in the video room to remedy what the Canadiens did on the other side of the puck—they allowed 76 shots to be directed at goaltender Sam Montembeault’s net, with 15 of them coming from the home-plate area in front of him on Tuesday.

Working through game-tape against the Predators might not be enough to fix a penalty kill that not only allowed two goals on four chances Tuesday but one that has now allowed 12 on 24 dating to Dec. 18.

“We can’t kill a penalty to save our life,” St. Louis said before acknowledging the unrelenting schedule from here to the end of the month won’t allow for much practice time.

The Canadiens will play 13 games in 27 days before breaking from Feb. 1-10 for All-Star Weekend and their bye week.

The only comfort for them is that only three of those games will be played away from the Bell Centre.

“I think it’ll be fun to be able to put our heads on our own pillows,” the coach of the road-weary Canadiens said, jokingly responding to a question about returning home after seven games away.

But St. Louis knows he’s got serious business in front of him to quickly get the Canadiens back to playing the brand of hockey that would allow for them to sleep peacefully in their beds.

There’s pressure in that task he hasn’t faced since taking over for Dominique Ducharme. He’s not cleaning up someone else’s mess this time around.

If and when St. Louis rises above it, he’ll have grown considerably as a coach at this level.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.