What the Puck: Martin St. Louis inspires, but is he a great coach?

St. Louis is a breath of fresh air after a string of conservative, defence-first coaches, but he is not yet being judged on wins and losses.

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It’s too early to call Martin St. Louis a great National Hockey League coach. We’ll only be able to make that judgment once Canadiens management starts caring about winning games.

Right now, executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes have made it clear that the team is focusing on developing the kids, not wins and losses. They’re the first Canadiens managers to go fully into rebuild mode and they know this young team isn’t ready to compete with the big boys.

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So unlike the vast majority of NHL coaches, St. Louis doesn’t have to worry about winning. That’s why his losing record as head coach of the Habs doesn’t define his tenure behind the bench. Since being named interim coach on Feb. 9, 2022, the team has a 59-77-15 record. Even the most math-challenged among us must realize that 59 wins and 92 losses is pretty darn terrible.

Before you start throwing tomatoes at me, please understand I’m not saying St. Louis is a bad coach. The rosters he has had to work with have hardly been NHL material. The team is, to be generous, a work in progress. Bottom line is the core of the team is made up of a bunch of budding players who are far from hitting their prime. Add the nutty amount of injuries since St. Louis took over and it makes it even harder to give him a fair grade.

My point is we don’t know if he’s a good coach or a not-so-good coach. That might seem obvious, but it’s a conclusion that escapes a large swath of the fan base and the media corps. They love St. Louis and his inspirational style.

And so do I. He is a breath of fresh air after a string of coaches all cut from the same cloth. Almost every one before him was a conservative, defence-first bench boss who approached post-game press conferences like a visit to the dentist. In comparison, St. Louis is a veritable sports guru with quotable snippets coming out with more frequency than Connor Bedard goals. St. Louis is a great communicator. None of the 21st century Habs coaches were.

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I used to marvel at Dominique Ducharme’s press conferences. I often couldn’t understand what he was trying to explain and I figured if I didn’t understand, there was no way the players could understand what he wanted from them. That’s basically what longtime Habs equipment manager Pierre Gervais said in his book Pierre Gervais: au coeur du vestiaire (co-written with La Presse journalist Mathias Brunet).

Then there were the Michel Therrien years (two sets of them). His press conferences were all sound and fury. My most lasting memory of Therrien is the video of him yelling his head off at P.K. Subban for making too many mistakes.

Most of us had a surge of hope when St. Louis took over because he sounded like the first Habs coach this century (with the possible exception of Guy Carbonneau) to be advocating a more exciting offensive style of hockey. He is, after all, one of the great forwards in recent NHL history.

Then he appeared to help Cole Caufield turn into a scoring star last season. He looked to be the sniper we all thought he was, scoring 26 goals in 46 games before going down with a shoulder injury. We all figured St. Louis was just the guy to inspire Caufield, a welcome tonic after Ducharme had him languishing in the shadows. (Remember when he wasn’t even in the lineup when the Habs started their monumental playoff run in 2021?)

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But young Mr. Caufield has stalled this year. He has only eight goals after 32 games and there’s clearly something very wrong with his game. So for the moment, the MSL magic has worn off.

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The other odd thing is that St. Louis’s Canadiens have tremendous difficulty scoring goals. Again, much of that is the talent on the ice. There’s only one natural goal scorer on the team, the aforementioned Caufield, and he’s not putting the puck in the net. Even the best coach in the world isn’t going to make Jake Evans a sniper.

Here’s the real question — what is the identity of St. Louis’s Canadiens? What system is he coaching? I know he likes concepts more than systems, but every team plays a certain way. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s definitely not the wide-open offensive style we thought it would be.

The best thing he’s brought to the team is his ability to bring the players together as a tightly-knit gang. There’s a great joy to this group. There’s a great team spirit, again something we haven’t seen much of this century with a few notable exceptions (2010, 2014, 2021). He inspires.

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And he inspires these guys to never give up. We used to turn the TV off when it was 1-0. Now they’re in every game to the last second. Look at Thursday night’s game in Minnesota. Down 3-2, Juraj Slafkovsky, the team’s best forward in recent weeks, scored at 16:57 of the third. Yeah they lost in overtime to the Wild, but they fought to the last second.

That’s a major achievement for St. Louis. He’s made the team fun to watch again. But the real test for the Hall of Fame player is going to come when his bosses tell him he has to make the playoffs. Now that’s going to be interesting to watch!

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