Jack Todd: Canadiens struck gold with St. Louis. Will Senators follow suit?

If Ottawa hands the reins to Daniel Alfredsson this off-season, they’ll join Montreal in defying idea that superstars make lousy coaches.

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At some point in the post-lockout spring of 1995, I drove to Quebec to write about the Nordiques.

It wasn’t hard to find a reason: the Canadiens were in the throes of an awful campaign that saw them go 3-18-3 on the road, while the Nordiques lost only a single game at home and dazzled through much of Peter Forsberg’s rookie season.

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In those less hermetically sealed days, when I wanted to talk to the coach I simply ambled down the corridor from the Nordiques room at Le Colisée, stuck my head into the coach’s room and asked Marc Crawford if had time for a couple of questions.

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I don’t recall the questions or the answers — but I do remember who was with Crawford: his assistants, Joel Quenneville and Jacques Martin. Crawford and Quenneville would eventually be embroiled in two of the biggest scandals in hockey history: Crawford with Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Steve Moore, Quenneville in the Chicago Blackhawks sexual-abuse scandal.

When D.J. Smith was fired in Ottawa and replaced by the 71-year-old Martin this week, it was a reminder of the time when the Nordiques were still in Quebec City and Crawford, Quenneville and Martin all had the better part of their careers ahead of them. Ironically, Crawford was interim coach of the Senators before Smith was hired — the NHL is nothing if not a league of recycled coaches.

Martin’s return this week as interim coach of the Senators was one of those eminently sensible hires you see now and then. Sometimes, a franchise needs to lower the temperature — and no one does chill like Martin. The man who hasn’t been a head coach since he was fired in December 2011 (and replaced, disastrously, by the unilingual Randy Cunneyworth) is perfect for the Ottawa job now.

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At worst, Martin buys time for Ottawa president of hockey operations Steve Staios and newly minted owner Michael Andlauer to set a new direction with their coach pending the hiring of a GM. At best, Martin will instill some discipline and consistency in a team that has been among the league’s biggest disappointments to date.

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The most intriguing aspect of the shift in Ottawa, however, was the promotion of former star Daniel Alfredsson from practice coach to full-blown assistant. Alfredsson is, in so many ways, a clone of Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis. Both are former superstar forwards who command respect throughout the hockey world. Both are bright, articulate and thoughtful.

Should the Sens decide to hand the reins to Alfredsson in the off-season, they will be following in the footsteps of the Canadiens, who defied the common wisdom that superstars make lousy coaches. (See Richard, Rocket and Gretzky, Wayne.)

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It makes sense. The Senators, after all, have had a front-row seat as the Canadiens have reshaped the organization with St. Louis as the club’s most visible representative. In today’s relentlessly sealed NHL, when wandering journalists are most certainly not welcome to stick their noses into the coach’s room for a few questions, the coach sets the tone more than ever.

If your coach is a foul-mouthed bully who treats players and reporters like doggie-doo on his shoe, that reflects on the entire organization. If he’s open, thoughtful, articulate, highly energetic and fiercely competitive, that becomes your public image — and the description fits both Alfredsson and St. Louis.

While the drama unfolded in Ottawa this week, the Canadiens were pulling off an overtime win in Winnipeg and a double comeback on their way to an overtime loss in Minnesota, ahead of Friday evening’s date with Connor Bedard and the Blackhawks in Chicago. Two games into the often-disastrous seven-game holiday road trip, they’ve already banked three points and St. Louis’s influence is felt in everything they do — especially in the resilience this young team so often displays.

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When the Wild took a 2-0 lead Thursday evening, it would have been mail-it-in time for many teams. The Wild had scored two quick goals (the second following what should have been a crystal-clear offside violation inexplicably approved by the inexplicable Toronto War Room) and it was time when teams elect to go through the motions.

But the Canadiens killed the ensuing penalty and, keyed by a couple of key saves from Samuel Montembeault, fought back to tie it at 2-2 on Nick Suzuki’s goal, only to see the Wild take the lead again on a third-period power play.

That should have been it but with a bit more than three minutes to play, Juraj Slafkovsky scored on a leaping, athletic deflection of a David Savard blast from the point to tie it again. It was Slafkovsky’s second display of elite hand-eye co-ordination in as many minutes, following a play in which he swatted the puck out of the air while spinning backwards to keep it in the zone.

The young Slovak’s entry into the NHL has not been a bed of roses. It’s hard to imagine what it might have been like under a Dominique Ducharme or Michel Therrien but with the right encouragement, he’s finding himself.

It’s not that superstars can’t coach. It’s a matter of finding the right superstar.

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