In only six games, interim head coach Martin St. Louis seems to have reawakened something asleep in the Canadiens’ dressing room – pride.
For most of the season, the team was a rudderless ship adrift in a sea of apathy. Players simply went through the motions, others striving to give their best, but their efforts lacked direction. This isn’t to kick former head coach Dominique Ducharme while he is down; he is a coach with years of experience and success at every level, but sometimes a coach’s voice becomes stale. In this case, it happened quickly.
Is it because he was on Claude Julien’s staff and Ducharme’s voice was seen as merely an extension of Julien’s? Perhaps.
Does this early success point to the interim tag being removed for St. Louis? No, it is far too early to make that determination. What it does show is that this former Peewee coach and Hockey Hall of Famer had a detailed plan in mind if he ever got the opportunity to take the helm of a professional hockey team.
For those concerned that any improvements now would damage the team’s chances at getting the top draft pick at the 2022 Entry Draft, don’t be too concerned because the damage to the season has already been far too extensive. After 51 games and the first actual winning streak this season, the Habs have a league-worst points percentage of .255. Even if by some miracle, they could go .500 (which would be a massive leap ahead) over the remaining 31 games that would leave them with a total of 45 points on the season. That would still leave them as strong contenders for the first overall selection.
However, what has St. Louis done to get the first winning streak of the 2021-22 season?
Concepts vs Systems
When coaches enter a new position, they bring with them a plan, a system. Then there’s a period of learning and adjustment by both the coach and the players. At the NHL level teams with early improvements after introducing a new coach is due to players wanting to impress their new boss, which is human nature. The new coach brings with him a “new” system, but any system is just a variation or two on another system that the players have already learned, which doesn’t do much to make a large difference in a short amount of time.
What St-Louis is preaching feels different. He spoke about Concepts vs Systems, and it is resonating with the players so far:
“In systems, you box players into only certain things they can do, that was probably one of the things that I hated the most as a player is playing in a system. I was a great player when I was allowed to make reads because the best players make the best reads. But if you take the reads out of the equation, those best players become average. So I want to make sure that I allow my best players to make reads and I’d rather them make a bad one than not make a read at all. And sometimes in systems, there are not many reads. So I’m more excited as a player playing in a concept than in a system, but there’s tons of structure in a concept. It’s just a little more freedom.”–Martin St. Louis
His method is to allow his team the freedom to be creative, to allow the situation at the moment to dictate the reaction. Watching his practices, he’s been shrinking the ice and creating small area drills. This trains the players to learn to read the play faster, react quicker and learn to place pressure on their opponents until it becomes instinctual. It’s training them to think about the game in a way he did as a player.
This has translated to the play on the ice. Game-by-game, we can see how the concept is taking shape. Players have become more aggressive in their defensive coverage, they are making quick plays to get the puck out of trouble spots and move it up ice. Also, there are no more set offensive plays. Under Julien, it was a cycle game with volume shooting. Under Ducharme, that system never took shape well enough to know if it was any different from Julien’s. Now, however, the players seem to be able to use their skills and creativity. It’s a more organic creation of offense where each player is now falling back onto their instinctual styles that brought them to this level.
A different kind of meritocracy
Another departure from the last regime is the approach to meritocracy. There are no more benchings for a small error or a separate standard for rookies and veterans. St. Louis has been giving each player the trust to play freely. This has given players a sense of confidence allowing them to play to their strengths without fear. Cole Caufield may be the brightest example having scored five goals (plus a shootout winner) and eight points in his six games under the new coach, after only scoring one goal and eight points in his 30 games under the previous coach.
“He trusts my game, I think that’s the biggest part for me”–Cole Caufield
It’s not just about a mental block or the players approaching the game feeling more freedom to be themselves, it’s also about the coach realizing that mistakes will happen but that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. Meaning, if the player is giving him more positive outcomes vs the poor ones, he should still play.
“He’s playing free. He makes mistakes sometimes, for sure. I made plenty of them on the ice. But he’s doing many more good things than making mistakes. So, a coach has to live a bit with those errors, so long as the good things are there.”-Martin St. Louis
This will build trust between him and his roster.
The trust St. Louis is generating between himself and his players has helped them to buy into his plan. In turn, this has led to more competitive outcomes in their games. This makes things more fun, not only for fans but the players as well. They learned how to have fun again!
That has led them to an aspect of the game that can’t be quantified by a statistic. It’s an intangible that any successful team needs, that is confidence or as St-Louis refers to it, Swagger.
“I think to be successful as a team in this league, and as an individual, I think you need some swagger, and I think we’re building a lot of swagger right now, and swagger is not cockiness or arrogance; it’s just believing in yourself and feeling good about yourself. And I think we have that.”–Martin St. Louis
This confidence has provided positive outcomes with Caufield as mentioned above, but also in the rebirth of Jeff Petry who has looked like the Petry seen over the last four seasons that was providing excellent two-way play and point production. It has also begun to provide signs of life to this Canadiens lineup who punctuated their first three-game win streak with a dominant performance against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. What made the 5-2 victory even more impressive was the fact the Habs were in the second game of a back-to-back which included travel to return home to play the game.
It has been a very positive week for the Canadiens. They’re playing a more competitive and entertaining brand of hockey. They have been getting wins again. This is helping players to perform in an atmosphere that values winning and that in turn helps the development of the young core as well as can help raise trade values for players management will still decide to move out. Has this been enough to remove the interim tag from St. Louis’s title? Not yet, it has only been six games, but if he continues to provide this level of effort from his team for the remainder of the season he may earn himself an extension.
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