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Canadiens Analysis

Canadiens Coaching: The Balance Between Structure and Instincts



Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St-Louis brought a new approach to the team when he joined the organization in 2022.

Every coach has their style.

Some allow their players the freedom to rely on their instincts, while others choose to have a strict system that everyone must follow.

As a former player, I know that too much coaching and structure, and not enough freedom, can force you to grip your stick too tight and worry about not making a mistake rather than playing “your game.” It can also make it much harder to generate offence because there is not enough room for creativity.

What does it mean to rely on instincts?

It means processing the game as it comes rather than having a set plan before the play develops.

Playing off of instincts relies on a player’s hockey IQ, where they can make the right split-second decision. Hockey happens so fast that the best players are not even thinking about the game; instead, they allow their experience, instincts, and ability to dictate what they do on the ice.

How does playing with too much structure affect a player?

It can negatively affect players because they become stripped of their ability to process the game. Instead of reacting, they focus on the X’s and O’s of a structure, which can make them always behind the play and playing on their heels.

Coaches preach playing on your toes, which means reacting and being aggressive. When there is too much structure, a player is stuck on their heels, slow, late to the play development, and too cautious.

NHL players are at the highest level for a reason.

They are world-class talents who made it to the pinnacle of their sport thanks to their skill and hockey IQ. It is up to their coaches to implement a system where they can succeed by allowing them to do what they have done their whole careers that got them to this point.

Forechecking, neutral zone structure, and defensive zone structure are the three major systems implemented into every hockey team’s game. Within these systems, some coaches allow for creativity and the use of instinct, while others do not.

Overcoaching With The Montreal Canadiens

The term “overcoaching” refers to teams that do not have the freedom to react to plays as they happen but instead have specific rules on how to play the game in every possible situation.

There’s a perfect example of such a phenomenon in recent Montreal Canadiens history.

Under coach Dominique Ducharme, the Habs suffered from being overcoached and stripped of their originality, which led to a lack of offence. The effects of overcoaching were apparent in the struggles Cole Caufield endured in the 2021-2022 season under Ducharme.

Veterans such as Jeff Petry spoke up, stating there were simply too many instructions at play to make sense of the situation.

Playing Too Loose

On the other hand, there are situations where coaches allow for too much freedom, which leaves holes in a team’s game that ultimately can hurt them. “Playing too loose” is a term often used to describe a team that struggles to defend.

There is not enough emphasis on playing defensively, but instead on cheating the game for the offence. When a coach allows their players to rely solely on instinct, it can lead to cheating for the offence.

There is a happy medium that the best coaches can find. For a coach, a player, and a team to have success, systems need to be implemented throughout the team structure while allowing players the freedom to rely on instincts within these systems.

Canadiens: Martin St. Louis’ Coaching Style

Let’s look at the current balance that Martin St. Louis has implemented throughout his tenure as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

Someone who himself excelled by playing off of his instincts, St. Louis has implemented this creativity with the Montreal Canadiens. It has paid off well for top guys like Juraj Slafkovsky, Nick Suzuki, and Cole Caufield. However, it is important that as a coach, St. Louis understands that others might need more structure and less creativity.

MUST READ: Player Insight – Why St-Louis Is The Perfect Coach For The Canadiens

For example, the fourth line on any night might need more structure and less freedom than the first line. These bottom lines need this because of a lack of skill, and the playing style expected from them.

As St. Louis develops as a coach, so will his structure surrounding the Canadiens’ bottom-line guys. Especially as the games become more important, St. Louis will want to be able to trust his third and fourth lines in defensive situations, which means he is going to need them to be predictably responsible. His top lines can afford to be less predictable because they can provide the necessary offensive output needed to win.

Looking at the future of the Canadiens under St. Louis, it should be expected that the team will begin to find that medium between overcoaching and playing too loose.

The instincts that the Canadiens’ top guys play with will not be taken away but instead will be implemented into more structure, as the top teams in the NHL have already mastered.

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Martin St. Louis understands the importance of using one’s instincts to play hockey, but my impression is that he is a super cerebral coach, although he does seem to allow some players to have total freedom. But for some players who do everything instinctively he wants them to think more. So I think his approach may have mixed results, being good for some players but not so good for others players. And for new players it may take along time for them to grasp all the concepts that he is teaching them.
One weakness that he has as coach is the management of player’s ice time giving some players too much ice time and other players too little ice time. This may be one reason why if the team plays two games in two nights, they will usually lose the second game, as some players had too much ice time in the first game and are thus a bit tired for the second game.

John Smith

Good piece Cam! The next few years we will see how Martin St Louis evolves in this craft. You work with the tools that you’ve been given. You can’t put square pegs into round holes. I believe that players should be taught a variety of systems in order to counter whatever an opponent throws their way. My main concern with Martin St Louis is that he does not appear open to hiring assistants who could replace him. In the NFL, coaches have strong brain trusts surrounding them. Their NHL counterparts seem more insecure. At the very least St Louis should have a consigliere. Someone to bounce ideas off of.


Their “D” system sucks