Martin St. Louis has laid a solid foundation in Montreal, and now the hard part starts

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Martin St. Louis has laid a solid foundation in Montreal, and now the hard part starts

MONTREAL — To fully understand the complicated puzzle Montreal Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis will face heading into his third full season behind the bench, a brief synopsis of the day of his team’s final game of the 2023-24 season is necessary.

Before the game, defenceman David Savard was speaking to reporters about winning the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy, awarded to the team’s unsung hero of the season. Savard is entering the final year of his contract and will turn 34 roughly two weeks into the next season. There is an urgency for Savard that is not the same for many of his teammates.

“I believe next year we have the group to make the playoffs,” he said. “That’s my goal in September: to get here, stay in Montreal and get to the playoffs. I want to experience that once in my life, to be in the playoffs in Montreal. It would be pretty special to wear that uniform in the playoffs. I saw it as a fan, and I think the city goes pretty crazy, so it would be fun to see it from the right side of things.”

The Canadiens scored a go-ahead goal against the Detroit Red Wings in Tuesday’s third period. It was set up by Lane Hutson, who was playing his second career game, and tipped in by Juraj Slafkovský, who was playing his 121st game. It was Slafkovský’s 20th goal of the season, earning him a $250,000 bonus. Slafkovský and Hutson were drafted in 2022, the Nos. 1 and 62 picks; it was the first NHL Draft engineered by the current administration led by Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes.

Logan Mailloux — the No. 31 pick in the 2021 draft, the last one of the previous administration led by Marc Bergevin — got an assist in his NHL debut. The other goals were scored by Alex Newhook and Cole Caufield, two players selected back-to-back in the middle of the first round of the 2019 draft, and Brendan Gallagher, who will turn 32 in May and has three years left on his $6.5 million contract. Hutson and Slafkovský were 6 years old when Gallagher was drafted in 2010.

All of them are at different stages of their careers, and all of them have different needs. But they will all be expected to push together to reach the goal Savard stated so emphatically before the game, the same goal captain Nick Suzuki stated with equal conviction in Ottawa on Friday. The Canadiens are definitely at a crossroads, and though much of the burden for executing that transition to having playoff aspirations falls on Gorton and Hughes, St. Louis will be the one tasked with executing it.

And in that sense, St. Louis might also be at a crossroads in his young coaching career.

Up until now, the Canadiens have had no expectations — either internally or externally — to do what Savard and Suzuki clearly stated they expect the team to do next season. At the preseason Canadiens golf tournament, Gorton wouldn’t even say the word playoffs, preferring to call them the “p-word” and stating that was not the expectation for the season. It is hard to imagine him having the same reluctance at next season’s golf tournament in September.

St. Louis was an intense competitor as a player, and he remains so as a coach, but he is more measured in that intensity because he has more information and more people to consider than just himself. Wins and losses are no longer black and white. Nuance and context go into every win or loss, and all of that is painted with the brush of the Canadiens being in the middle of a rebuild.

Well, the Canadiens will now be hoping to be coming out of a rebuild, expected to make the same kind of steps made by the Red Wings, who were eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday night despite beating the Canadiens for the second night in a row, this time 5-4 in a shootout. The Canadiens have been out of contention, essentially, for months.

How will St. Louis change as the expectations change? He doesn’t know, but he also doesn’t seem to think he needs to change all that much.

“It’s a balance,” St. Louis said. “I don’t want to lose myself with results, because you lose your sanity. You want to go back and watch the film, maybe look at a little bit of data, but have some truth of where you are. Sometimes I’m going to be positive, and sometimes I’m not going to be as positive. Do I like to win? Absolutely. But I feel like the last couple of years I’ve been OK, I guess, to lose because we rarely got outplayed. Rarely got outplayed. So it’s hard to not be positive when you don’t get outplayed. So, for me next year? I don’t know. If we’re getting outplayed, I’m probably not going to be positive much.”

It is not fair to say St. Louis has always been positive with losses because he hasn’t. When the Canadiens lost 5-2 on the road to the Boston Bruins on Nov. 18, St. Louis was disappointed in his team’s performance, and he acted in kind. He basically spent the next week working on the Canadiens’ forecheck and nothing else because that was what he identified as being the reason they were so badly outplayed in Boston.

“For me, that game, it was obvious that we didn’t touch the puck in Boston because we did not forecheck well,” St. Louis said. “And we really spent a lot of time focussing on that, and it became a big part of why we were able to play with top teams and why we were able to find more consistency in our game. That’s where it started.”

Gallagher called the Canadiens’ forechecking the team’s identity, of being tough to play against and continually sending pucks deep and forcing opposing defencemen to do something they are not all that enthusiastic about doing. But the Canadiens also needed to be willing to do something they were not enthusiastic about doing because every hockey player would prefer carrying the puck into the offensive zone and making plays offensively.

“When you’re talking about creating an identity as a group, it’s not going to be easy; it’s going to take a bit of time,” Gallagher said. “Rightfully so, he was frustrated with us because we probably weren’t picking it up as quickly as he would have liked. But we stuck with it, and eventually you get results, players understand this is the way it’s going to be to have success.”

On the other hand, St. Louis loves to say everything starts with the truth. And the Canadiens’ truth is changing. Talented young players will be taking spots on the team, the talented young players already on the team have taken steps and will take further steps, the older players on the team have an urgency to win, and management seemingly feels a similar urgency to at least put the team in a position to win.

The Canadiens, for the second year in a row, finished close to the bottom of the NHL standings and left the ice after their final game to cheers from the fans at the Bell Centre despite losing their final game. It is hard to imagine those fans reacting the same way if the same scenario presents itself for a third year in a row or if the players or management will be quite as understanding, either.

St. Louis has to manage all that and appears up to a challenge he has yet to face as an NHL coach: meeting expectations, internal and external, to guide a winning product, a playoff product.

“I would be very surprised if we didn’t improve, whether that’s internally or externally,” St. Louis said. “Our young players will be a bit older. That’s always the goal, and it will be up to Kent (Hughes) to juggle that.

“I’ll see my lineup and I’ll go with that, and I won’t make excuses.”

(Photo of Canadiens players acknowledging Bell Centre fans Tuesday: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)