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The decision to let Dominique Ducharme go as head coach wasn’t too surprising but the appointment of Martin St. Louis as interim head coach certainly was.  Our writers weigh in on the coaching change in Montreal.

Terry Costaris: This is a head-scratcher of a move. It seems as if it’s a panic move. Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes seem to be appeasing the antsy Habs fan base. If this is true then yikes!

Maybe things inside the team were beyond toxic. If, so then something needed to be done. Nevertheless, wheels are spinning in my head as I write this.

No disrespect to St. Louis though, but being a quality head coach in the NHL takes years of experience. Yes, he was a heart and soul player but this is not the 1980s where these types of moves happen anymore. Yes, Jacques Lemaire and Bob Gainey did well in this craft with minimal coaching experience. But in today’s NHL, they likely would have failed just as most first liners in their day would be fourth liners in today’s game.

Remember Mario Tremblay? He had similar qualifications as St. Louis. If I do recall, his hiring did not end well. Just saying.

Winning in today’s NHL is about being fractionally better than your opponent. St. Louis is taking a dive in shark-infested waters. He may have strengths in motivation. He may be bright, but there is no way that he is a master in the area of tactics like virtually all of his shark-like peers.

I get why so many people were not fans of Ducharme but with only a few months remaining in this miserable season, there really was not much of a point in letting him go. Do you really want to see Montreal move up four or five places in the standings? Under Ducharme, the Canadiens were guaranteed to finish in the bottom three. We’ve been forced to watch months and months of a meaningless season and if by some miracle this team catches fire, everything will have been for naught.

Let the fans and media moan and groan. Montreal needs high draft picks. Finishing in the bottom three is essential.

The risk for Martin St. Louis is immense. He is going to learn this difficult craft under the ridiculous glare of Montreal’s media spotlight. He could be snuffing out his coaching career before he’s ready for prime time.

Yes, I get that this appointment is interim and that the Canadiens can walk away from it in April but I just don’t see the point here. One thing I do know is that Joel Bouchard must be kicking himself right now.

Allan Katz: Let’s look at what chances Ducharme had this year to have any sort of success.  The Habs were built around their superstar goalie, Carey Price. Protecting him was a surly defensive corps of big bruisers. Down the middle, the team had a plethora of talent. Surely the team was bound to do maybe even better than okay. BUT the team built from the superstar goalie outward has not seen their superstar playing one minute. No problem, the team’s number two goalie, while not an equal was definitely a legit NHL talent. Um, he’s currently injured. No problem, the Hab goalie of the future, Primeau, will show us what he can do. Uh, excuse me, Cayden’s obviously not ready for Prime Time.

Okay, but what about the bruiser of a defence?  Number one powerhouse, Weber, career all but over. Number one all-around defenceman, Petry, possessed by the Devil and still has not recovered. Okay, but they have a solid #3 in Edmundson … out all season to date.

Yeah, but what about the awesome centre position? Danault, a top five defensive centre with great faceoff prowess and smart enough to, well I was going to say score a dozen goals, but the correct completion would be smart enough to leave town. That’s okay because Kotkaniemi… nope.

Well, at least they have the two superstars Suzuki and Caufield!

In other words, Ducharme had no chance and I didn’t even mention the injuries (close to the top of the league) and COVID displacements. At one time, the Habs had 25 players out and that’s not even possible.

When Claude Julien was replaced by Ducharme, the Habs coaching position went from not close to handsome to GQ handsome. This point has no place in any article on the coaching change, I just wanted to say it.

The new coach Monsieur St. Louis has been around the block in his career, not only seeing it all but flourishing because of his relentless drive and success as a player against all odds. So he has no coaching experience … what could go wrong? (sarcasm intended)

The pat answer is nothing could be worse than what they had. The glass half full answer is St. Louis has charisma, hockey I.Q., Hall of Fame credibility. He has been as low as low and as high as high; he can relate to anyone’s situation. Are the odds against him? Absolutely. Can he get the team cooking enough to be back as the head coach next year? Who knows, but the fact is he is a likable fellow, a winner with a good head on his shoulders. We are going to find out. Double fingers crossed with a cherry on top for Hab fans.

POSTSCRIPT: With Sean Farrell currently leading the Olympics in goals and points, by this time next year St. Louis might have quite a few players he can see eye to eye.

Brian La Rose: When Gorton came in and said Ducharme was safe through the season, I thought it made sense.  Things weren’t looking up but eventually, they’d at least play their way back towards something resembling respectability.  Lately, it was something if they played with interest for consecutive shifts let alone consecutive games.  They really didn’t have much of a choice as playing in this environment would have been damaging for the younger players trying to develop and for the trade values of veterans.  Sure, they’d have helped cement last place but the other costs (stalled development and lower trade returns) outweighed the small potential benefit.

I don’t think many people need to ‘worry’ about Montreal going on a big streak to work their way up to 27th in the league as a result of this coaching change and really hurt their lottery chances.  They still have Samuel Montembeault and Primeau in net.  Montembeault was a lock to allow three goals a game when healthy and now he’s playing through injury and while I’m not going to pile on Primeau, he’s not turning in many good performances either.  This team still needs to score four goals a game to have a shot at winning most nights.  No coach can make that happen with regularity, especially with the state of this roster.  If the Habs played at a .500 points pace the rest of the way, they’d still only finish with 59 points.  Most years, that’s still good enough for last.  Yes, Arizona is still really bad as well but there’s a fair bit of separation to 30th that will take a pretty good run to make up.  St. Louis can make them better and they still very well may not go any higher than that.

I like the boldness of the hire.  He’s not another retread and it’s far from a safe choice.  They’re swinging big here.  Where I’ve flipped over the last 48 hours is in the perception of the chances that St. Louis will still be in this role in October.  When it was first announced, I thought the rest of the season would be his chance to prove he’s worthy of the job.  Now, I think it’s the other way around – he has to show a reason to lose the job for him to not have the interim tag lifted.  This sure feels like Hughes and Gorton have their guy to try to lead this group through the tough times to come and beyond.  Many fans have longed for a more up-tempo approach and eventually, we should see that from St. Louis.  That’s certainly something to be excited about.

Kevin Leveille: Starting with the Ducharme firing, I think Gorton and Hughes went back on their initial assessment that he would finish the season out of necessity. They met people over the break and came to the conclusion that no matter what Ducharme did, the buy-in wasn’t there and he was doomed. No matter the quality of the system, if the players don’t believe it can work, the team has no chance to succeed with it. As positive as I was when they made the switch to Ducharme last season, I was more disappointed in his approach to the game this season. I give him a pass for last season as he couldn’t change much, but I really thought he’d bring a more modern vision to how the Habs do things this year and I was wrong. It was the same old reliance on veterans, even kids were clearly outplaying said vet on a given night. To me, he had to go, and for the benefit of the few players who have a long-term future with the team, doing it sooner rather than later was the right call.

Now for the shocking news of hiring St. Louis as the new interim head coach. I get that there is a long list of reasons to not like this nomination. Lack of experience with the market, with the team history, and as a head coach at a level above AAA Pee-Wee just to name a few. However, Hughes spoke of a team that plays fast and offensively. He spoke of bringing in fresh ideas, and named Rod Brind’Amour as the blueprint to a coaching selection. St. Louis certainly checks off many of the boxes that Hughes named. A bunch of guys aren’t going to be around long-term, and two guys need help moving forward in Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Keeping these two in mind, I like the short-term vision of this hiring. I also very much appreciate the absolute courage of Hughes to make this move knowing very well the criticism that would follow it. Might this move be a terrible one? Absolutely. But the team is already 32nd and not competing, so can it get much worse? I guess what I’m getting at is that much like the Hughes hire as GM, this is a new vision and a new way of doing things and my plan is to keep an open mind and hope that it works. After all, the way things were done hasn’t been working for the last 30 years, so why not try a fresh and new approach to building the team!

Peter Longo: Finally!!! It’s been painfully obvious all year but finally, the pain has ended!!!

Absolutely – Ducharme did not enjoy the best of circumstances with the condensed schedules and injuries. I can certainly cut him some slack – if the Habs were anywhere close to a playoff spot, or even just being competitive. But you know what, every NHL team has gone through similar challenges so it is no excuse to be the worst in the NHL. I’m usually not one to second guess coaching decisions, but some of his are bewildering:

  • Sitting Romanov (and Kulak) for most of the 2021 playoffs while playing Merrill and Gustafsson for five to six minutes a game of error-prone hockey;
  • Sitting Tomas Tatar (leading scorer for the Habs between 2018-2021 and part of one of the best lines in the NHL) for all but five games in the 2021 playoffs;
  • Playing Jake Evans on the wing so Rem Pitlick can play center for the first time in his career;
  • Playing Drouin on the penalty kill or any time in the last two minutes of a tight game;
  • Pulling rookie Cayden Primeau in a close game – even though he was playing reasonably well – in order to “spark the team”.

These are the types of decisions that just confuse, frustrate and demotivate players. Added to this was the abysmal defensive zone coverage, special teams performance, and all too often lack of effort. It was obvious he demotivated the players so much and they just gave up on him. I would do the same thing – I can’t blame them.

In terms of the St. Louis hiring, he is obviously not hired due to his coaching experience, and I suspect it will be just for the remainder of the year. Clearly, this is damage control and an attempt to bring better leadership and atmosphere to the team. His playing credentials are impeccable (as is his French), and I expect the players will enjoy the change of a positive relationship with the head coach. Both Gorton and Hughes know him and trust that he can undo some of the damage Ducharme inflicted. Understandably they couldn’t just let this type of poison infest a multi-billion-dollar business. This is a very good decision. The only bad part is that it wasn’t made in October.

Ken MacLeod: Somehow, I can’t see this interim coaching gig as St. Louis’s audition for the head coaching job for a rebuilding Montreal Canadiens team that will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs next season and likely even a couple of seasons beyond that.

St. Louis is well regarded in the hockey world as an intelligent and capable man, but the truth is that he has no real coaching experience. Fortunately, that doesn’t hurt much when the team in question has already settled to the bottom and won’t be bobbing to the surface anytime soon.

Instead, I see this as Gorton and Hughes getting out in front of the rebuild by shrewdly putting a trusted set of eyes and ears behind the bench for the rest of the season, with the intention of St. Louis moving up into management at season’s end and bringing with him the intel gathered from working directly with the players on a daily basis.

I think St. Louis will have a bigger role with the team on a more permanent basis, but his first job will be to help Gorton and Hughes figure out just what they have in the 2021-22 Canadiens roster that’s worth holding on to for the rebuild.

Dave Woodward: Ducharme’s firing was overdue.  His regular season record speaks for itself.  And the manner of their most recent losses elicits concerns that a losing culture has taken root in the room, something that is toxic to the development of young players.  Recent Canadiens’ games have been unwatchable.  The lack of effort and engagement has been appalling.  The players were openly questioning his system in the media and at least some veterans had clearly quit on Ducharme.  A change had to be made.

The hiring of the inexperienced St. Louis as head coach is nonetheless surprising.  St. Louis has little to no NHL coaching experience, serving only as a special teams consultant with Columbus under John Tortorella.  St. Louis accepted the job for only the balance of the season so that does seem to limit the risk of this hire.  However, given his lack of experience, the hiring of St. Louis as an NHL head coach does seem premature.

We shall see how St. Louis’ tenure as head coach works out but there’s no doubt a coaching change had to be made.