Q&A with Martin St. Louis: On developing players, bringing balance, and defying odds

Montreal Canadiens' forward Brendan Gallagher and head coach Martin St-Louis discuss the excitement for the Canadiens' young players ahead of their NHL debuts and speak about their enthusiasm ahead of the first game of the season.

BROSSARD, Que. — It’s in between morning meetings and the Canadiens are taking to the ice for their last practice at their south-shore training facility before the start of the regular season that Martin St. Louis carves out 20 minutes for an interview.

To say the 47-year-old has been busy since taking over from Dominique Ducharme back in February would be understating it. He jumped from the bantam bench of his son’s hockey team to the most prestigious bench in the NHL, vaulting up with no professional coaching experience and doing so in one of the most pressure-packed markets in the league, and there’s been little time for him to focus on anything other than the enormous task he’s undertaken.

Family time has been cut down dramatically. With his oldest son going from Northeastern University to joining his middle son as a member of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, St. Louis is happy he only has one game to keep track of outside of the one the Canadiens are playing on any given night, but laments that he likely won’t see either of them in person before Christmas.

“My wife is here right now, visiting me, and my dad is taking care of my 14-year-old at home in Connecticut,” he says. “She’s here for two weeks. I haven’t seen her in a month, and it’ll probably be another month I don’t see her after that. I think my little guy and my wife are going to come mid- or late-November for a weekend.”

Not easy.

But St. Louis accepted these circumstances when he decided to take up executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes on their offer to coach the Canadiens.

At one point during our conversation, the Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup winner who scored 391 goals and notched 1,033 points over 1,134 games split between the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers, says: “I’m not here because I need this, I’m here because I love it,” and it certainly explains why he’s willing to make those kinds of sacrifices.

There will be more to come as St. Louis attempts to bring the Canadiens to prominence much faster than most people assume he can.

With a three-year contract signed over the summer to shed the ‘interim’ label he started with, the clock is ticking.

It was moving fast on Tuesday as we tried to cover as much ground as time would allow us to in an empty room a level above St. Louis’ office in Brossard, Que.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation — edited only slightly for the purposes of clarity and flow. During it, St. Louis covers the monumental leap he took up the coaching ranks and the unmentioned upside of going from coaching kids to coaching pros, to debunking the notion hockey sense can’t be taught. He also discusses why his practices look different than any other practices we’ve seen at this level, the player he feels has benefited most from his coaching, and Cole Caufield’s growth as a player.

St. Louis also addresses Nick Suzuki’s captaincy and Juraj Slafkovsky’s development, how he processes losses and the steps he needs to take to become a better coach, the identity he’s trying to establish for the Canadiens, and his own expectations for his team this season.

SPORTSNET: When you were first hired, everyone made a big thing out of you going from the bantam bench to the NHL bench, but no one really thought of it as an advantage. Considering the organization’s emphasis on development, what’s maybe the advantage of coming where you came from?

MARTIN ST. LOUIS: I think one of the biggest advantages of coaching youth hockey was all I was doing was trying to develop kids, and the results just came as a side effect of what we were doing. I wasn’t going to try to win games at the price of not developing kids and I feel like, with where we are, we want to win but want to win for a long time. So, I think it’s important to not get lost in the result and the pressure of winning. And I think I can stay that path because I love the game. I’m not here because I need this, I’m here because I love it.

I feel like the other advantage I have is there’s not one guy on my team that I don’t know what he’s going through — from the guy being called up to the guy being sent down, the guy who’s scratched, fourth-liner, third-liner, all-star. I know about everybody’s internal pressure and what they’re going through because I lived it. And also, I was a penalty killer in the league, I was a power-play guy, and there’s not one role I didn’t play, so I feel like I can help in all facets of the game because of that.

Of course, I delegate some stuff, but I love my staff because we coach in collaboration and we don’t coach in silos. And I feel four brains is better than one, so I love the dynamic we have. I’m not a (dictator), it’s just about getting it right.

Also, I got to play for a long time, and I would say over my last 10 years I was already coaching. I was playing, but I was coaching my teammates. I always felt comfortable teaching.

SN: Specific to coaching youth: If you go back to when you were playing, all the drills seemed to focus on flow and making things crisp, but the fact that you were teaching so much at the youth level seemed to open your eyes about the teaching that can be done at this level. Hence how different your NHL practices look …

MSL: You’re right. The way I practised as a youth is completely different to the way I practised in the NHL. I did not like my NHL practices as a player. They were very scripted — you go here, you do that — and there was not much thinking or decision-making.

So, if you expect your players to make hard decisions in key situations, you’ve got to develop the training according to that. You can’t be upset at them in the game when they don’t execute under pressure in certain situations if you don’t recreate that environment in practice. It’s going to be much easier in the game (if you do simulate it in practice).

Historically, I felt that the practices were not geared to replicate the game. At the youth level, there’s been a big, modern approach in developing, and I was part of that the last seven years — how to design practice to accelerate development for what you need to be a successful, productive player on the ice. And so, I’ve had really good practice time to do that. And, to me, I don’t care what level of hockey you play; hockey is hockey. There are rules of the game that the best players understand and it’s not like they’re written rules. It’s about the way it should be thought. If you play by some of these rules, you always put yourself in a good spot. You always try to look for the advantage on the ice. You can’t just play your game, you have to play the game, and you have to bring your game to the game.

Does that make sense?

SN: Yes, it does. What seems really clear is that, between you and (director of hockey development) Adam Nicholas, you guys are attacking the notion that hockey sense can’t be taught. If I understand, you’re saying it can’t be taught if you keep running practice in the traditional way, in a way where all you’re focusing on is flow and passing and motor skills being crisp and so on.

MSL: Exactly. I look at it as: Is it easier to learn a language at three years old than at 23? Absolutely. But can you still learn a language? Yeah.

You’ll never be as good as if you learn it at three, but you can still communicate.

So, how much better do we make a kid? I don’t know, but we can make him better.

You’re not going to get him fully there versus a kid who already has that.

But if you improve him 10 or 15 per cent, how much more productive and efficient can he be on the ice? That’s what we’re after. We’re all after the little increase.

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SN: Who on your team — maybe it’s one or two players — has really shown an improvement in incorporating your concepts into his game?

MSL: The one guy for me, and I don’t know if it’s so much physical or mental or both, is, Brendan Gallagher. From what I saw with Gally last year to what I see now in this small sample I’ve had from camp, I’m really happy for him.

He’s just playing the game and not just playing his game.

What’s his game, historically?

SN: It’s battling in the corners and in front of the net.

MSL: It’s F1 (being the first forechecker), win battles and go in front of the net and take a beating.

I don’t want to take that away, but the game isn’t always that and the game doesn’t necessarily need Gally to do that all the time. Sometimes the game needs Gally to just play the game and it’s not his turn to be that guy.

So, to me, I talk a lot about being balanced (in positioning) on the ice as a group. You have to be balanced on the ice. So, if Gally just wants to play his game, is he worrying about the team being balanced or is he just worrying about playing his game?

If you’re balanced as a group, you’re going to retrieve more pucks, guys are going to be more open. When you get on balance, sometimes one of their players gets stuck checking two of our players and it’s advantage us.

I’m not looking to take anything away from Gally’s game. He’s still good at that. But he’s got to play the game and not just his game.

SN: Cole Caufield really started playing the game again after you arrived. A lot of people gave you credit for that, and you said you have to give the player credit. You deserve some. What can you do to continue to improve him as a hockey player and not just as a scorer?

MSL: A little bit is similar to Gallagher in being balanced and playing the game. It’s a little bit of that, too. I think if Cole plays the game, he’s going to be probably getting more scoring chances. If he knows that we need to be balanced as a group on the ice and he’s not just going to where he wants to go …

Cole’s going to end up where he wants to be to score goals a lot of the time, but sometimes it’s just not that time to be in those places. So, if he plays with the mentality of being balanced on the ice, he’s going to help the group, which is going to help him.

SN: When you say, “being balanced on the ice,” are you just talking about reading the situation and what position you’re supposed to be in in relation to the other four guys on your side?

MSL: And the other team. To me, it’s spacing.

SN: We talk a lot about the hockey mind, and that’s clearly Nick Suzuki’s best asset. What have you learned about Nick and what excites you about coaching him?

MSL: He’s very smart. He kind of drives the bus. He’s a good leader.

I didn’t know much about Suzy as a player, but he takes the responsibility very seriously. And it reflects in his work ethic on the ice, his mental engagement, and that’s what you need.

You need guys like that.

The best thing for a coach is, eventually, the team coaches itself. Once everything is kind of in place, you look at the best teams in the league and they coach themselves. Everything that they do on the ice becomes like brushing their teeth, and then you bring in one new guy and he falls right in because everybody knows what they’re doing and this guy doesn’t have a choice but to fall right in. The train keeps going.

SN: How can you coach Nick to be able to have him help the team take over from you?

MSL: I don’t think you coach that. I don’t think you force that. That happens organically.

And guys do it differently. Some do it by example, some do it by talking, and some do it by both, and usually the first step is by example. The talking probably evolves as you get more comfortable.

But you can’t force that. You can’t force a guy to be a vocal leader, it just ends up happening at some point.

And I don’t know when that is. It could be now. I don’t know, honestly. I’m not in the room.

Suzy leads by example for sure, but I’m not sure how much of a vocal leader he is, and that’s for him to figure out. You can’t be a vocal leader if you’re not ready for it. If you force it and it’s not genuine and not pure, then it’s not real.

I became a vocal leader, but I wasn’t one at 25, 26. I led by example.

SN: Does Nick have a fiery side? We see the calm, composed Nick, but we’re not exposed to him behind closed doors.

MSL: Oh yeah, he does. He competes.

SN: But will he get in somebody’s face in your room if he has to?

MSL: I don’t know. I’m not in the room, and I leave the room to the players.

SN: Moving on, Juraj Slafkovsky is 18 years old, he’s a first-overall pick, and he’s in a pressure cooker in Montreal. What’s the communication like on a daily basis so he can play free?

MSL: Exactly. We want him to play free. You don’t want to over-coach an 18-year-old.

SN: Kind of like not wanting a better golfer you’re playing with to constantly be giving you swing tips during a round…

MSL: Exactly, because then they’re unable to play free.

If there’s too much information, now there’s going to be hesitation, and we don’t want there to be hesitation in his game.

Make a million mistakes, just don’t make the same ones over and over again.

For us, when he makes mistakes, we need to evaluate if they’re one-offs or trends because you’re not going to coach the one-offs. You’re going to coach the trends.

SN: It’s clear one of the biggest reasons he was drafted as high is that he showed an ability to adapt quickly. Have you seen an adaptation from when he first arrived at camp to now?

MSL: Definitely. Absolutely. There’s been a lot of growth in his game, and I think a part of it is we haven’t really coached him.

There’s a time and a place, but his freedom is more important than his learning right now. And the learning is going to happen.

But again, we’re trying to figure out what are the one-offs and what are the trends because you don’t coach the one-offs.

SN: How important is it for him to be starting with two veterans in Gallagher and Christian Dvorak?

MSL: I think it’s super key to play with guys that have been there and play the right way and lead by example and there’s a lot of predictability in their game. I think it’s going to help Slaf to just fall right in.

SN: If he has to go down to Laval at any point this season, how do you make him feel like that’s not a failure on his part?

MSL: If he’s going down, it’s because there’s a plan for him.

Like, do we want him to go down and see if he can run a power play? Kill penalties? Can he get more of those reps in there?

SN: So that decision won’t just be performance-based?

MSL: No, I don’t think so. For us, we’re trying to build an athlete that’s going to be a big part of this franchise’s continued success over x-amount of years and sometimes you’ve got to do things that are going to make him really good in two years.

If you don’t do that, then maybe he’s not as good in two years because maybe you’re afraid of hurting his feelings. You have to do what’s best for the player. And I feel we have that runway right now of making sure that we handle every guy properly so that when we’re ready to really win, those guys are the reason why because of what we did with them until we get there.

SN: Regarding that runway, people say you’re the best man for the job while the priority here is on development rather than winning, but they’re unsure if you’ll be the right man for it when the team is expected to win. What can you do to improve as a coach so that you feel you’ll be prepared for when that time comes?

MSL: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I think that the best thing I need to do right now for this group is build a brand of the way we want to play, manage every player independently and increase their value, and I feel if we do that then winning becomes a side effect. I feel I have to be careful in getting too far ahead.

I need to control what I can.

SN: But when you stepped off the bench last season and had a couple of weeks to decompress and think about things during the summer, was there something that you said to yourself you need to work on to become a better coach and a better manager of the bench?

MSL: I still think I need to get better at running a bench.

I don’t think I’m bad at running a bench, but sometimes there’s games where things happen really fast with penalties and it’s 5-on-4, and then it’s going to 4-on-4 and 4-on-3 and I have to think about how to roll out of that and how to not lose guys on the bench.

I’m conscious of that because I’ve been that guy who gets lost on the bench, and it sucks. And when I do that to a guy, I apologize to him because I don’t want him to think it’s performance-based that I lost him. Sometimes I (expletive) up, and I tell him it’s my bad.

But you learn from your mistakes, and I feel like self-assessment is probably the biggest thing in growth. I do that, and I know when I make mistakes, and I try not to make the same ones.

SN: Who do you turn to in the coaching fraternity when you have questions?

MSL: I turn a lot to my coaches here. I ask them all the time if I could’ve done anything better, and they have good feedback.

Over the summer, I lean on a couple of the guys who have coached me, and we talk things through.

But sometimes you have to make your own mistakes. You can’t just make mistakes and go ask somebody for the answer.

SN: Because of expectations being so low, as they have been since you took over, it seems as though you’re never particularly rattled by a loss. Or maybe you don’t want to show us that you are. How do you actually process loss?

MSL: Listen, I hate losing probably more than I like winning, and I’ve been like that my whole life.

So, is it hard at times? Yeah.

But I have to stay the course. And I truly believe that, with how we do it here, the winning is eventually going to be a side effect. I have that in the back of my mind all the time, so if I get wrapped up with the loss, I’m going to get off the path.

The path is way more important than how I feel after a loss.

SN: This team obviously doesn’t have an identity yet, and we wouldn’t expect it to be built over a three-week training camp that had 75 players here, injuries to key guys and an overly-taxing schedule. But what is the identity you want to build for the Canadiens?

MSL: I want us to be a team that’s tough to play against on both sides of the puck, and not because we work hard but because we work smart and we’re together. I want to play defence as soon as we lose the puck and I want to play offence as soon as we win the puck. I don’t want to start defending when we’re in our zone and I don’t want to start offence when we’re in their zone. I want us to be a team that connected and balanced.

SN: We know what the external expectations are. What are the internal ones?

MSL: Just grow as a team. Other than that, I don’t know what it is because that expectation might change.

There are things we can’t control (like injuries), but our play is going to speak to us. The expectation might change depending on what our play says to us.

SN: What would it mean to you to make the playoffs this season? We’re sure that management would love to draft Connor Bedard, but you and the players aren’t playing to lose games. So, can you defy the odds?

MSL: I love to be the underdog. I love to prove people wrong.

My goal is to grow this team. Do we grow to be a playoff team this year? If we do, that’s a lot of growth.

And then it’s how far can we go? It’s about how far we can take this, and not just this year. We’re sticking to our plan, but when does it go from, “How long is it going to take?” to “How far can we go?”

I don’t know when that’s going to be, but it’s going to happen.

SN: But if you don’t think it could happen sooner, then it definitely won’t happen sooner.

MSL: Exactly. We’re not playing men’s league here. This is the NHL. We’re competitors.

But we have to do it in a way that we grow the individuals in a collective environment.

How fast do we grow as a team? I don’t know. It’s going to depend on how fast we grow as individuals, so it’s going to depend on the players. We’re here to guide them and keep them accountable to stay on that plan and that path.

SN: Best of luck to you.

MSL: Thank you.

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