New coach Martin St. Louis commands instant respect from Canadiens

Jesse Fuchs & Eric Engels discuss the Canadiens firing head coach Dominique Ducharme, the reasons for his departure, and what Martin St. Louis brings to Montreal as he gets set to make his NHL head coaching debut.

MONTREAL — Me: Martin St. Louis is your new head coach.

Montreal Canadiens player: Hard not to listen to a Hall of Famer.

Think about that for a second. It says a lot about why Dominique Ducharme was dismissed 15 days shy of his one-year anniversary as coach, and just as much about why St. Louis is taking over.

St. Louis may not have Ducharme’s coaching pedigree, but he commands instant respect. This is a person who has earned it, taking the hardest route imaginable to superstardom — signed out the NCAA when most players got drafted out of major junior and plugged into an NHL made for giants and not pint-sized players like himself. He was quickly rejected by the first team to take a chance on him, and few believed he’d ever make it work with someone else let alone evolve into such a prolific player.

St. Louis proved some right and countless others wrong, retiring in 2015 as an Olympic gold medalist, and a Stanley Cup and Hart Trophy winner who recorded 391 goals and 1,033 points in 1,134 games. He played his first 69 with the unimpressed Calgary Flames and then moved on to become one of the greatest players to ever dress for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He finished his career with the New York Rangers, losing in the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning and scoring the last of his 90 points in 107 career playoff games. He retired as one of the most beloved and respected players of a generation.

Hard not to listen to.

Of course, St. Louis wouldn’t be preparing for his first press conference as coach of the Canadiens if his former Vermont Catamounts teammate still commanded the type of attention necessary.

Ducharme did at the start, after moving from the post he had been occupying as assistant coach of the Canadiens since April of 2018 to the post he took over on Feb. 24, 2021. But his message fell on deaf ears over the final weeks of his brief tenure, which ends with a regular season record of 23-46-14 in just 83 games.

A 7-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday put Ducharme under the axe. What happened over the couple of weeks prior led him to the guillotine. He accepted feedback from players who came to him requesting he make adjustments to the forecheck and a defensive-zone system that consistently failed and generated just eight wins through the first half of the season, but he defiantly stuck to his guns.

After an 8-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 24, the Canadiens came back to the Bell Centre and lost 5-4 to the Anaheim Ducks and torpedoed into the All-Star break on the heels of a 7-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers and a 6-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

If Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton still had intentions of staying true to his word of retaining Ducharme’s services through the end of the season, he quickly learned he couldn’t after the Canadiens lost in such embarrassing fashion to a Devils team that had dropped its last seven games and was playing on the second night of a back-to-back while the Canadiens were coming off a week’s rest.

GM Kent Hughes sat and watched alongside Gorton, and then both of them watched Canadiens forward Josh Anderson express his embarrassment and describe an atmosphere no player wants to be in.

“We’ve got a lot of hockey games together and it is not fun losing right now,” said Anderson during his post-game availability Tuesday. “It’s not fun coming to the rink.”

Gorton has only been around the Canadiens since late November, and Hughes was only hired on Jan. 18, but both saw the team get off to its worst first 20 games in franchise history and both saw the situation devolve dramatically from there. They could certainly feel the atmosphere without having to listen to Anderson talk about it.

They had to intervene, and they did.

“We would like to sincerely thank Dominique for his work and contributions to the Montreal Canadiens organization,” read Hughes’ statement Wednesday. “At this point in the season, we felt it was in the best interest of the club to make a change.”

One seemed imminent for the coach who shed the interim label and signed a three-year contract extension just last July.

Still, it’s a hard knock for Ducharme, who was clobbered with one haymaker after another after taking over for Claude Julien. He stepped into his role midstream and was left immediately swimming against the current. Shortly after he assumed the job, the Canadiens got shut down due to COVID-19 and then returned facing an unprecedented schedule that made practising on consecutive days impossible through the end of the season. Every key player got injured as they fought to secure a playoff spot, all while the salary cap constrained Ducharme from dressing his optimal lineup on several nights.

He helped the Canadiens gut their way through a shocking first-round upset of the Toronto Maple Leafs, guided them through a four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets and after coaching the first couple of games of the semifinal against the Vegas Golden Knights came down with COVID-19 and was forced to watch from his couch. This was Ducharme’s dream job, and he was stuck at home through most of the Vegas series and the first two games of the Cup Final.

It was brutal.

Just when it felt like Ducharme’s luck might turn, with his new contract secured and a fresh page in front of him, Shea Weber proved too injured to continue his career. Joel Edmundson, Montreal’s steadiest defenceman last season, got hurt on the first day of training camp. Carey Price, the franchise goaltender, then checked into the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program on the eve of this regular season. And since then, the Canadiens have dealt with more devastating injuries and placed more players in COVID protocol than any other team in the league.

Ducharme may not have helped his situation with the way he operated the team through all this turmoil, but he was dealt an incredibly bad hand.

His players knew.

“Dom helped lead us to within three wins of a Stanley Cup and deserves credit for that,” Canadiens alternate captain Paul Byron wrote in a text on Wednesday. “We bought into him, the way he wanted us to play, played together and played our hearts out for that run. This year’s been incredibly difficult with almost everything not working out the way we all wanted it to. It’s been a rough year and we’re all responsible for what’s happened so far.

“It’s never a good feeling seeing someone lose their job, and Dom is a good man. I wish him and his family nothing but the best in the future.”

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The Canadiens now look towards theirs, too, with St. Louis arriving on an interim basis — and to a very warm welcome.

“I’m very excited,” said alternate captain Brendan Gallagher via text. “Nobody competed like Marty. I watched him play as much as I could. Played against him, obviously, as well. His compete level was what separated him from most if not all players. So, looking forward to learning as much as I can from him.”

For Byron, another Calgary Flames throw-away who has made an impressive career for himself as an undersized forward in Montreal, knowing St. Louis’ coming in is beyond encouraging.

“Marty is a legend,” said Byron. “He walks into the room with immediate respect from every player no matter who you are.

“We had a similar path to the NHL and he worked for every inch he got and became one of the best players in the NHL and a Stanley Cup Champion. He’s someone I really looked up to when I was a younger player trying to establish myself as an NHLer. He achieved everything through an incredible work ethic and attitude and I really think he’ll be able to connect with everyone in the dressing room.”

Gorton and Hughes would know. The former was part of the Rangers front office for both years St. Louis was there, and his son Jack was recently coached by St. Louis at the peewee level. And Hughes was an agent for several Quebec-based players throughout his 25 years in the business — including to St. Louis’ longtime Lightning centreman Vincent Lecavalier — and both his sons and one of St. Louis’ are currently teammates at Northeastern University.

Both Gorton and Hughes must be thinking this hire will be as good for the marginal player on Montreal’s roster as it will be for their best one.

It can’t possibly be bad for skilled, young core pieces Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Alexander Romanov. And given St. Louis’ recent experience working as a skills consultant with the Columbus Blue Jackets, he will certainly be an asset from a player development perspective.

The Laval, Que., native is bringing that, and a spark to a Canadiens team that so desperately needs one.

As former Canadien and St. Louis teammate in Tampa Nate Thompson told us in a phone interview, “Marty was the guy who taught me never to be satisfied and to always continue to be better. He helped me establish myself as a full-time NHLer. Marty always had a way to talk to me and have me think a different way and be better. He was just awesome. And he’s not just one of the best people in hockey that I know; he’s one of the best people in life.

“He’s a natural-born leader. It’s not going to be hard for guys to want to play for Marty. And if it is, then they don’t have a pulse.”

St. Louis will certainly have everyone’s attention, because it’s hard not to listen to a Hall of Famer.

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