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Martin St. Louis keeps winning, and that’s just fine

How has the newest bench boss balanced the pressure of a rebuild with getting on-ice results?

NHL: FEB 10 Capitals at Canadiens

It’s likely beginning to sound like a broken record at this point, but the Montreal Canadiens under new head coach Martin St. Louis have looked like an entirely different club than the one that spiralled to the bottom of the standings under Dominique Ducharme. Across the board, the team looks like they took a dip into the Lazarus Pit and came out as the best version of itself, and it’s finally lifted the Habs out of the last spot in the standings.

Barring Andrew Hammond going on another miraculous Hamburglar run in a Habs sweater, it’s nigh impossible for Montreal to make any kind of playoff threat. Therein lies the tough part for St. Louis and the Canadiens. How can the coaches balance the positive steps forward while also keeping in lockstep with the long overdue rebuild that Marc Bergevin never fully committed to?

At some point, the Habs will lose games again. That’s just a fact of reality in the NHL. The front office is also going to ship out some players between now and March 21, something many fans have already come to accept. The thing about both of those events on the horizon is that it’s totally fine in this season for both to happen, so long as there’s something in place to build on for the future.

Under Dominique Ducharme, the Canadiens were a listless mess where no one on the team looked like they had any sort of effort left in their body. That in turn makes the job of Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton much more difficult as they can only judge their roster based off the worst play of many players’ careers. It makes it hard to discern whether a player has fallen off or if they’re just mired in some kind of temporary slump, which in turn makes the decision to trade or not trade those players even more fraught with risk.

When St. Louis was hired, he said his job was to find out who wanted to be a part of the solution on this team and to get things back on track. Through seven games, he has brought life back to not only Cole Caufield and Jeff Petry’s seasons, but many others on the team. While this is a great sight to see in terms of player analysis ahead of the trade deadline, there’s a bigger bonus.

St. Louis has been saying that he just wants his players to play hockey with their instincts and to trust their own abilities. In too many cases, coaches revert toward safe play being rewarded and high-risk things that don’t work out are punished. In the modern NHL, skill gets rewarded, and St. Louis’s concepts are a breath of fresh air for the Habs.

Playing without the fear of being punished for mistakes is how you take a team of younger players, or players who might be struggling, and let them relax and play like they’re capable of.

The Habs are winning games and are no longer in the top-odds spot to draft Shane Wright. That’s just fine as well. The front office is now actually able to assess its potential trade assets, and players are looking more attractive to buyers. The Canadiens are also building a system to modernize their game and not force square pegs into round holes.

There are still 30 games left in this season, and Montreal will still lose a bunch of them, but with the way St. Louis has steadied a captainless ship, it’s not hard to feel like the rebuild will play out just fine, even if he does coach his group out of the first overall pick by the end of this season.