Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis isn’t looking to overcoach his youngsters, but rather allow them to grow organically, and that may lead to unpopular deployment decisions.
In a market like Montreal, the temptation to push a youngster into the limelight the moment he shows a flash of brilliance has been difficult to shrug off, even with this new management team preaching patience from the get-go.
With general manager Kent Hughes being transparent about the fact that the club is focused on development and likely won’t challenge for a playoff spot, the expectations for the team may be low, but the expectations for growth are now much higher.
A Shift In Strategy
An easy example would be the case of Juraj Slafkovsky, who has been seen an average of ten minutes of ice time or less in each of his first four NHL games. Many have expressed their concern over the club’s most promising player being deployed so sparingly, given the lack of expectations this year, but it’s undeniable to anyone watching him that he has improved in each game he’s played.
Many feel that he should be put in offensive situations and played top minutes right away, given the fact that winning isn’t the priority this season, but, if you ask St. Louis, he’d say that’s not an ideal way to teach.
It’s a shift in approach that hasn’t been seen before, as the pressure to perform in this market has created a trend of overcoaching that St. Louis is looking to break away from.
The Montreal Canadiens’ bench boss gave an example of the philosophy he’s looking to bring to the organization, when he broke down the steps that were taken en route to increasing Kaiden Guhle‘s responsibilities over the last four games.
“Stuff like that you let happen organically. His 5-on-5 play makes us trust him a lot and we know he has an offensive game too,” said St. Louis on easing Guhle into more responsibility. “The way he’s been playing 5-on-5, and watching the powerplay for three games; you learn a lot from just watching and getting a feel for it, instead of just throwing him right away.”
Kaiden Guhle (MTL21) played a suffocating two-way game in MTL's 3-2 comeback win over PIT.
The rookie tallied two assists with a 63% xGF% in 24 minutes, 60% of which was head-to-head with #87.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) October 18, 2022
Learning From Watching
“Learning a lot from watching” has often been code for “punishment” in the past, with young players being benched or scratched from the lineup for making the simplest mistake. However, in St. Louis’ case, it looks to be more of an opportunity for learning rather than a power move. Having Guhle, who clearly belongs at the point of an NHL power play, watch for a few games to get a handle on the Montreal Canadiens’ strategy, allowed him to start on the 2nd wave with more ease than simply throwing him there from the start and forcing him to figure it out.
It’s an interesting viewpoint that helps contextualize much of the other decisions St. Louis has taken with his lineup since he took over as head coach in February.
One can quickly look back to how Jordan Harris was scratched from the lineup late last season, as the Montreal Canadiens were rotating their many defensemen in and out of the lineup. Martin St. Louis defended his decision by saying Harris would learn more from watching the game up top than being put in an unfavourable position on the ice. Judging by the way Harris has played since the start of the season, it certainly hasn’t hurt his development.
So when it comes to Slafkovsky’s usage, it has much more to do with giving him the time and room to learn, without overwhelming him, than simply giving him 2-3 minutes more per game. St. Louis has always looked for improved even-strength play before granting his young players time on the powerplay.
“We talk daily with Slaf and we try to help him. I liked his game. I thought he played a heavy game and he moved his feet,” said St. Louis on Slafkovsky’s improving play. “Obviously, with the special teams, he doesn’t get to see much of the ice, but his 5-on-5 game, I was pretty happy with.”
Juraj Slafkovsky had a solid first period. This pass out to Chris Wideman was great. Good awareness. pic.twitter.com/Yzd3v0SgcO
— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) October 18, 2022
Steady Increase In Responsibilities
If Juraj Slafkovsky continues to stabilize his play at even strength, it wouldn’t be outlandish to see him get some power play time in the next couple of games, as the Montreal Canadiens have only scored one goal on the man advantage since the start of the season.
He’ll not only have earned his spot, but will now be better equipped to perform better on the power play, now that he’s improved the fundamentals of his game at even strength.
It’s going to be a process, and one different from anything fans have seen in Montreal; but you’d have trouble arguing that early results from St. Louis’ coaching philosophy haven’t been positive as of yet.
Let’s all learn from watching.