Whenever an organization makes significant changes, fans are met with a deluge of information from emotional reactions to “too soon” hot takes. So with Montreal jettisoning Dom Ducharme and going off the board to hire Martin St. Louis, what can we reasonably surmise thus far?
Before we embark on any analysis, I must drop the requisite disclaimer that we are six games into the St. Louis era, so all observations at this point must be dashed with a pinch of salt. Are we just witnessing a typical new coach bump? Is this just the expected optimism that comes with change after a dismal period? Of course, those are questions that need to be asked, but I’m going to suggest that while those elements are definitely present, they don’t account for everything we’re seeing.
To start, let me remind everyone that there was no new coach bump when Ducharme took over. There was no uptick in compete level from the squad or euphoria in the fan base. In fact, it quickly became the opposite as many fans wiped their eyes in disbelief that this new coach who was promised as a new age, creative thinker appeared to be deploying his charges in the exact same fashion as his predecessor, but with even weaker communication skills.
Now, I don’t intend this to be an opportunity to pile on to a man who was fired, but to provide a proper analysis of what we’re currently seeing, it is necessary to expose the underbelly of Ducharme’s failures. Let’s start with the obvious, which was his failure to properly deploy his most skilled assets. After over 20 years of coaches who have shackled young, enthusiastic players in Montreal, perhaps Dom felt this is just how it has to be done. However, it was in his failure to recognize that this was failing miserably that we will see the top reason why he is no longer looking at replays on his tablet as the players’ heads droop in front of him.
Cole Caufield is an elite scorer and offensive mind. These players run on instinct. Martin St. Louis understands this because he was one. He instantly dismissed any previous thinking the organization may have been married to and spoke about how his players needed to be granted freedom to make reads and make mistakes. And that he would work closely with them to help them improve their percentages over time. This was music to Habs’ fans’ ears. How many of us have screamed at our TVs over the years to play the kids and not punish them for every perceived affront to proper positioning?
Allow me to use an analogy to describe the Ducharme tenure. Imagine you are tasked with building a bridge, so you go about hiring a leading engineer and architect and surround him with the crew who will dig the holes and pour the concrete. Then, instead of letting that person figure out how best to execute the task, you give him an orange bib, a set of very specific drawings and tell him to hop in the digger and follow orders.
Not only is it a phenomenal waste of talent in the moment where you will not get the benefit of his design expertise, but you are now training that elite brain to defer to you on how to execute any future tasks. Insanity, right? Well, that sums up Ducharme’s run.
You could see it in the players’ body language. If you watch even five minutes of game tape from a Ducharme-coached game, you will notice several things, but one of the most common sights is a player starting to do one thing, pausing, hesitating and then retreating into another thing. This is painful to watch for anyone who appreciates the competent, creative minds that make the game entertaining. And most egregiously, it sabotages the very asset that might help you achieve your goals.
To put it in a more real-world thought, you need to transpose that game tape with one from the St. Louis era. The first thing you’ll notice is how much more motion there is from the players without the puck.
Dom believed in the puck carrier attempting to gain a line and get it deep while the other four held positions. Countless times during a game, there would be two or fewer Habs players actively skating. If you watch an overhead shot of the St. Louis system, you will be hard-pressed to find a time when at least four, if not all five, are pumping their legs. This serves St. Louis’s main talking point that the players without the puck are the most important. Not only does movement create options for the puck carrier and confusion for the defenders, but in the long game, it trains all of their brains to be constantly active and making reads while on the ice. There is no downtime or deferral thinking when you’re in the game.
This assimilates very well with St. Louis’s changes to the forecheck system and allowing his forwards to make reads. Where Ducharme would only allow one forechecker to provide a passive sweep near the puck if it had been sent below the opposing faceoff dots, St. Louis sees opportunities to create. Gone are the days when the other two forwards (F2 and F3 in coaching parlance) would both drop to the center line to be static and positioned for the oncoming rush. We now see almost constant pressure from two forwards without hesitation. Where Caufield was previously on his heels for much of the game, he is now on his toes. St. Louis wants his forwards to be the hunters, not the hunted.
What is the net result of all of this? Well – Ducharme, Julien, Martin, and any number of conservative predecessors feared this would result in oodles of chances against, sloppy coverage mistakes and odd-man rushes that represented a risk well above their tolerance.
What we’re actually seeing through six games is what many fans had theorized, which is a downturn in shots and grade A chances against. The thinking on this tends to be black and white, but the game is very nuanced. Old school thinking is that you take chances to score and you put yourself in bad spots which leads to goals against. The actual data tends to show that when you press and are aggressive, you put the opponent in a changed mindset where they’re thinking more defensively and aren’t counter punching nearly as often.
Will this change as teams do video work on the St. Louis Habs? Of course, it will to some extent as the NHL is a never-ending series of adjustments. But what you need to win that chess match is a firefight mentality. All hands on deck, taking the fight to the enemy. And between games, you need a braintrust that trusts the brains. One that can break down the opponent, encourage the troops and arm them with the confidence and tactics to succeed.
What I’m seeing so far is a confluence of positive results from the work of a coach who merely used his head to implement what seemed obvious to many. You don’t bring in skilled offensive players and ask them to play like talentless, defensive grinders. You don’t employ some of the most gifted skaters and playmakers on the planet and tell them they’re not allowed to do that and rather should hold specific spots on the ice and be ready to react. A general wouldn’t draw up a battle plan where his charges were only worried about reacting. They would use intelligence and data to figure out where the weak spots are to gain an advantage.
St. Louis has instantly gained the trust of his players by making respect a two-way street again. Here you have a Hart Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion who knew enough to enter a dressing room and extend enough respect to the faces staring back at him to let them apply the talents that got them there. He sees himself more as a consultant and supporter than a boss. We have seen him hunched over a player in detailed conversation on the bench more often in a week than we saw with Ducharme in a year. The barriers between the coach and the players are down and it is painfully evident.
St. Louis understands that the players you draft 16th overall are more capable than those you draft 160th overall and those are the horses he’ll ride. He understands that to ride those horses, you have to let them buck every now and then and live with some unsavoury moments. He understands a coach is not there to punish and break that horse, but rather to maximize its potential. Everything we have heard from him so far tells us that he is that new-age thinker the Habs have been so desperately needing. He understands it won’t all be sunshine and roses and that he is learning as he goes. His players see that and respect that.
Most importantly, in less than two weeks, he has changed the environment. He is a winner who wants others to share that aura. He has made it fun again to come to the rink because the players know they’ll be allowed to do what they do best and will have support when they fall. For the first time in a long time, the players are all rowing in the same direction and gaining confidence with every passing shift.
Coaching in Montreal is tough and we all know that. We also all know that St. Louis will screw up and draw some ire from time to time. What we’re also starting to learn though, is that we finally have a coach who converses with us and doesn’t look like they’re being tortured by the media.
One who has smart, thoughtful answers for any questions posed to him and one who gains the trust and confidence of a lot more than just the players every time he speaks. I have spent some time feeling awfully envious of Carolina for having a coach who is sensible, competitive and roundly respected. For the first time in this century, I’m starting to get those vibes in Montreal.
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