What’s wrong with this picture?
Your Montreal Canadiens, winners of 24 Stanley Cups, a Cup finalist as recently as last summer, are in last place as we hit the trade deadline with 20 games to go.
They’ve scored fewer goals than any team except the Flyers and given up more goals than anyone. They’ve all but locked up the green jacket at 77 under.
And everyone is smiling. Players, coaches, trainers, PR people, fans — even Montreal’s famously vicious journalists are making nice.
It’s disorienting. This is Montreal, right? Where it used to be: “Yeah, you won another Cup. But you lost two games in the final and Robinson is a pylon and Bowman can’t coach and …”
So what gives?
Marty St. Louis, that’s what. Plenty of credit goes to the people upstairs who were smart enough to swim against the stream and hire him, and plenty more to the players who quickly bought in and regained their skating legs.
But we are seeing a transformational coach in action here, folks. A guy whose approach to the game and to the people around him is so fundamentally different that his impact goes far beyond mere wins and losses.
First, and most obviously, St. Louis has made the Canadians fun again. Fans who had either tuned out or taken to watch games through their fingers now whistle through the day, checking their watches to see how many minutes are left until game time.
Even press conferences are a joy with St. Louis. Under Dominique Ducharme, they boiled down to reporters asking interminable, circuitous questions and getting mumbled clichés in return — in other words, pretty much the same as all the press conferences going back at least a couple of decades.
St. Louis’s lighthearted, energetic and transparent approach, and ability to laugh at himself, have turned these exercises in pointless tedium into a must-watch event. Even the coach’s exchanges with Chantal Machabée when he can’t find the right word in French are part of the fun. (Note also GM Kent Hughes has taken a similar transparent approach, which has helped to win over the club’s famously hysterical fans.)
This would be little more than a sideshow had St. Louis not been able to galvanize the players on the ice. He has done it by asking them to use their experience and talent to make reads and adjust accordingly, rather than worrying they’re supposed to be at a certain spot.
The effect has been most obvious with Cole Caufield. In 30 games under Ducharme, Caufield had a goal and eight assists. In 17 games under St. Louis, he has 12 goals and nine assists, as stunning a transformation as you will ever see.
The thought of how much damage a complete season under Ducharme might have done to Caufield is enough to give any fan the heebie-jeebies. The kid was lost, confused, uncertain. He seemed fearful. There were real concerns he simply wasn’t going to make it in the NHL.
Caufield is the most extreme example. Up and down the lineup you see the same effect, from youngsters Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov, to veterans like the much-maligned Jeff Petry.
“Marty coaches up the individual,” said TSN analyst Dave Poulin during a broadcast last week, “rather than coaching to the system.”
Poulin didn’t mention Ducharme. He didn’t have to. Ducharme represents coaching to the system taken to an absurd degree. St. Louis is all about the individual. Ducharme also coached not to lose, whereas St. Louis coaches to win.
Because of his spectacular failure, it’s tempting to dismiss Ducharme as an aberration, a one-off coach who simply didn’t get it. In truth, Ducharme was simply a less successful clone of coaches like Jacques Martin, Michel Therrien and Claude Julien. Perhaps Ducharme was more stubborn and inflexible, but he wasn’t fundamentally different.
Pat Burns once earned the nickname “Plat” Burns for the way he coached, but it has been the same league-wide — no matter what innovations the NHL came up with to give the game more flow and increased scoring, coaches would find a way to kill it.
The Canadians are still the second-lowest scoring team in the league, but they have scored at least three goals in 14 of their 15 games. In a copycat league, such dramatic improvement won’t go unnoticed. This is what makes St. Louis a transformative coach. He might lack experience, but he does not lack understanding of the game, or the ability to get it across.
When the smoke clears after Monday’s trade deadline, we’ll have a better idea of where Jeff Gorton and Hughes believe this franchise is headed in the immediate future. But the man to take them to that future has to be Marty St. Louis — the coach who made the Canadians fun again.
Heroes: Marty St. Louis, Kent Hughes, Jeff Gorton, Cole Caufield, Jake Allen, Jake Evans, Nick Suzuki, Brittney Griner &&&& last but not least, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the heroic people of Ukraine.
Zeros: Vladimir Putin, Alexander Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, Brady Tkachuk, DeShaun Watson and the Cleveland Browns, Nick Kyrgios, Claude Brochu, David Samson &&&& last but not least, Jeffrey Loria.
Now and forever.