No one can accuse Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis of not knowing what he is getting into. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you would think winning was the farthest thing from the Hockey Hall of Famer’s mind.
After all, despite improved play after he was hired, the team finished last in the 32-team National Hockey League. He’s not using that as an excuse, though. In fact, he’s using it as a challenge.
“[The three-year contract] gives me the time and the opportunity to build something,” he said on Wednesday. “It won’t happen in a day. We have wind in our sails based on what we did to end last season. We’re not starting from zero and we’ll take it a step at a time and continue to go forward.”
Most players on the team improved after he took over on the bench, and even he admitted he was happy to see players enjoying coming to the rink despite what was a hard season.
“I will continue to build the culture and how we want to play and give the young players confidence; give them the opportunity and a platform to continue to develop,” he said. “Winning is important, but are you building something that will allow you to have success year after year? And sometimes it takes time to build that. If the plan is always to win the next game, maybe you will win a few more games, but it’s short term. You have to build a culture that you will make the playoffs year after year and they will reach their individual ceilings. If we do that year after year, the players will be in an environment where they will win when it matters.”
Despite talking about focusing on the future, he made sure to emphasize that there will still be expectations to meet.
“We can’t go forward thinking losing is fine, but we can’t think that winning is the ultimate goal with where we are as an organization. It’s a balance and the goal is to exceed expectations. If we keep doing that, we’ll move in the right direction.”
Often the pressure to win overwhelms even the most forward-thinking coach, but St. Louis knows what the organization wants, and he knows how an organization can go from struggling into a contender. He sees success in progress, and it’s a mindset that has the future in mind. It may not be the easiest mindset to have when you’re ultimately judged on wins and losses, but St. Louis sees the growth needed as incremental.
“I don’t like to lose, but do I want to win in the short term at the price of not developing the young guys that are going to help you win for years? No, I don’t want to risk that,” he said. “I want to have the young guys, the prospects, the players who are here now reach their full potential. Sometimes you need to put those guys on the ice and make them feel confident on the ice. Short term does that not help you win as many games? I don’t know. But I’m not going to go into the season and just think that I have to win every game at the price of not developing the young guys. I’m not doing that. If I develop the guys the way I think I can, winning will be a side effect of that.”
Knowing what he is getting into is only half of the battle. Players like Cole Caufield showed significant improvement under St. Louis, and there will likely be more young players joining the NHL team in short order, including the potential first overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Of course, there are more than just young players to develop. There will be veterans who will be playing significant roles, but St. Louis feels that he is well positioned to relate to them as well. Often former players who had great careers have a hard time relating to players who weren’t as naturally gifted as they were, but St. Louis is not your normal Hall of Fame player.
“I don’t think I’ve proven myself to be a good coach yet,” he said. “I feel like when I came into the league. I knew I had the ability to be a good player but it took me some time to prove to people that I could execute. As a coach I feel the same way. I have the experience and qualities to make me a good coach but my actions, the way I succeed will speak for itself.
“I believe in my own experience as a player, being an AHL call-up, a scratch in the NHL, fourth line, third line, power play, penalty kill. I’ve been in so many situations that I think it’s so valuable to experience in this league. I understand what everyone on my roster feels like because I’ve felt everything they felt based on where they are on the depth chart. I have been exposed to different coaches, different situations, I’ve always been a student of the game and I feel like I absorbed a lot of that and now it’s to try to teach that. I think I have the abilities to possibly be a good coach and now I have to prove it and I am looking forward to it.”
When he was hired as interim head coach in February, he was the perfect coach to get the team back to basics and having fun again. Armed with this mindset, he may just be the perfect coach to turn the organization around. If he and the team reach their potential together, the results will speak for themselves.