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Martin St. Louis Has a Big Task Ahead with Canadiens

Now that Martin St. Louis had his interim tag removed, but the stark reality is, the Canadiens are a major work-in-progress, and even a coach like St. Louis, who can infuse his players with confidence, can’t overcome a lack of depth of talent.

The Montreal Canadiens confirmed Wednesday that interim head coach Martin St. Louis would have the “interim” tag removed from his job title and stay on as permanent head coach. 

The news was welcomed by most Habs fans, who saw an increased level of competition from the team after St. Louis took over the role in early February, as well as the development of young stars such as Cole Caufield.

That said, St. Louis is not a miracle worker. The Canadiens posted a 14-19-4 record under his guidance, and Montreal still finished with the worst record in the NHL (22-49-11). As a result, the Habs had the best chance at winning the NHL entry draft lottery, and indeed, they wound up with the winning pick and will draft first overall, likely taking forward Shane Wright with the No. 1 pick. There is hope on the horizon for the franchise, and Canadiens fans have reason for optimism.

But Wright and a full year of St. Louis’ guidance is not going to catapult Montreal from the bottom of the Atlantic Division to a playoff berth next spring. The Habs are a completely salary-capped-out team right now, and questions about the future of star goalie Carey Price abound. Canadiens GM Kent Hughes has much work to do this summer to ease the stress on their cap situation, and give the organization flexibility as they rebuild the roster.

So, St. Louis is going to be challenged in a way that will test his patience. If Price does return, he’ll have a world-class netminder as a foundational piece, but even then, Price won’t transform the Canadiens into a playoff team. They’ll have a difficult-enough time getting out of the Atlantic’s basement; the Ottawa Senators – who finished the season a full 18 points ahead of Montreal, for second-to-last-spot in the division – will be a better team. So will the Buffalo Sabres. And the Detroit Red Wings, under the direction of Steve Yzerman, may not be a playoff team, but they’re unlikely to slide to the basement of the Atlantic.

This is how teams get stuck in a rut in the competitive cycle. Look at the New Jersey Devils, for example: they’ve been attempting to climb up the Metropolitan Division standings for years since they made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012-13, but despite adding marquee names like P.K. Subban, Dougie Hamilton, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes over the years, they’ve made the playoffs just one time since then. It is incredible challenging to put together a leapfrog-season that turns your franchise into a playoff-caliber squad, and Kent Hughes and St. Louis aren’t going to get any charitable assistance from other teams to get them to that point.

This is why former on-ice superstars usually don’t make for high-impact NHL coaches. As players, they could put it upon themselves to help their team turn the tide and become legitimate Cup threats; as off-ice influencers, they can only do so much to be difference-makers, and it can become frustrating for them. Look at Wayne Gretzky’s years coaching the Arizona Coyotes for evidence of such.

The good news for Montreal is there’s nowhere to go but up from here. St. Louis’ influence will continue to help youngsters like Caufield flourish, and as Kent Hughes takes a scalpel to the lineup, they’ll have a better core of talent to build around. But nobody should be under the illusion the Habs will boomerang back to being a Cup Finalist. That was like a fever dream that only lasted for a few brief weeks.

The stark reality is, the Canadiens are a major work-in-progress, and even a coach like St. Louis, who can infuse his players with confidence, can’t overcome a lack of depth of talent. The road to Cup contention will be a long one for Montreal, and St. Louis will have to bide his time to shepherd them back there,

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