In the span of a few hours Saturday, Martin St. Louis really pulled out all the NHL coaching stops.
It began with wholesale changes to his forward lines against the Boston Bruins, changes he did not show at practice on Friday. The Sean Monahan line was broken up for the first time this season, so Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield were back together. Then, after his Montreal Canadiens were pushed around and beaten handily by the Bruins 5-2, St. Louis used the one word coaches generally avoid using at all costs when talking about their team.
He called them soft. Not once, but twice. And he came up with that word on his own. No one asked him if the Canadiens played soft Saturday night, but St. Louis went there regardless.
“The Bruins were good tonight,” he said in his opening comments. “I found tonight, it wasn’t that we weren’t working, it’s that we weren’t working well. And I found we were a bit soft, too.”
He just threw that in there, all on his own. Then he did it again toward the end of his availability.
In his time as Canadiens coach, St. Louis has avoided being overly critical of his team, largely because the expectations have been very low and the reality of where this team is in its development curve made it so being overly critical served no purpose.
But St. Louis’ own expectations of his club are clearly higher this season, and the way they played against the Vegas Golden Knights on the road three weeks ago and against the Bruins at home a week prior to this game is most responsible for those raised expectations. Which is what made it so appropriate that it was those same two teams that brought expectations crashing down closer to where they probably belong.
The Canadiens were sloppy against the Golden Knights at home on Thursday, and against the Bruins on Saturday, they were soft, just about the worst criticism a hockey coach can lay on his team.
“We haven’t had an easy schedule lately in terms of workload, but also in terms of the quality of teams we’re facing,” St. Louis said Saturday. “During a season you’re going to go through downs, and since the start of the season, we’ve hit our lowest down. We’ll have to get to work and get out of it.”
Regarding those line changes, St. Louis said he didn’t like what he saw, and who could really blame him? But one revealing aspect of those changes was the performance of Monahan once removed from Brendan Gallagher and Tanner Pearson. The assumption was that Monahan would be better suited playing higher up the lineup, with more skilled players he could help facilitate and create offence with on a more consistent basis. Monahan began the game playing with Juraj Slafkovský and Jesse Ylönen and finished it with Josh Anderson and Gallagher.
By game’s end, Monahan’s on-ice numbers were atrocious. The Canadiens managed two shot attempts and gave up 22 with Monahan on the ice at five-on-five, and both of those attempts were blocked. Unblocked attempts were 16-0 Bruins, shots on goal were 8-0 and the Canadiens’ expected goal percentage was zero.
The upcoming week will be very revealing. The Canadiens leave for California on Monday and will be gone for 10 days. St. Louis has issued a challenge to his team. Let’s see how they respond.
“We don’t expect to be perfect all the time, I don’t believe in perfect,” goaltender Jake Allen said Saturday. “But at the same time, I believe in having a standard. We all know what our standard is here, and we’ve got to get back to it. This is the start of a trip, we head home, but really the start of the trip is when we head out west and I think this is a great opportunity to really try to raise that standard again and play some consistent hockey.”
Shooting with Slafkovský
Prior to practice on Friday, Slafkovský skated on to the ice and set up shop in the right faceoff circle. Canadiens director of hockey development Adam Nicholas joined him there and passed pucks to Slafkovský, who was letting go of shots as quickly as he could. The first few shots were meek, barely getting to the net with any power at all, but they were getting there quickly.
Nicholas would stop him from time to time and explain something about the positioning of Slafkovský’s hands, how to get the shot off quicker and with more power.
“It’s just small details that could possibly help, hopefully,” Slafkovský said after practice Friday. “I trust him that it will help.”
It doesn’t come off in print, but there was a lot of doubt in those words. Not the fact that he trusts Nicholas, because he does, but more so doubt in the shooting details. Shooting a hockey puck is something Slafkovský has done for most of his life. Now, he has someone talking to him about the placement of his upper hand, about finishing his shot with his hands further away from his body. It’s a lot of information he’s never thought about before.
“It’s just the way the hands are finishing after the shot, so the release is stronger and quicker,” he said. “I don’t know, the way you hold the stick, like upper hand … I don’t know.
“It’s too much information so I need to process it myself and translate it into Slovak.”
And then he laughed. He wasn’t being serious, but Slafkovský has legitimately been overloaded with information this season. He’s had one-on-one video sessions with St. Louis, these sessions with Nicholas, power-play meetings, scouting meetings … it can probably get overwhelming.
But the shooting work has a purpose.
“That’s what we are trying to do,” he said, “to make it natural for me so I don’t even think about it.”
Fast forward to Saturday night, and Slafkovský does this.
Dernière le filet ➡️ devant le filet ➡️ et le but!
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) November 19, 2023
It was the left faceoff circle instead of the right, but that was basically the exact situation Slafkovský was practising with Nicholas on Friday. The puck was on his stick and off immediately, and the shot had some zip on it, far more than what he was generating Friday.
And while practice definitely has something to do with it, his stick does as well. Slafkovský has a contract to use Bauer sticks, but he’s been using a CCM for a little while now, ever since trying one of Arber Xhekaj’s CCMs the last time the Canadiens were out west a few weeks ago. You can see the CCM stick in the photo above, and the Bauer stick from opening night against the Toronto Maple Leafs below.
So, has he gotten a call from Bauer?
“Yeah, I did,” he said with a laugh. “Basically, I like the new stick, so we’ll try to figure out something with Bauer. I don’t know, we’ll think about it later.”
Kaiden Guhle’s approach to tough matchups
The Canadiens game at home against the Bruins on Nov. 11 featured Kaiden Guhle being hard-matched against David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, a matchup we pointed out in last week’s notebook as having gone exceedingly well.
When asked about it Tuesday morning, Guhle kind of brushed it off.
“You don’t even really look at that sometimes, you don’t really notice it when you’re getting matched against those guys,” he said. “Maybe not noticing is the wrong word, but I’m just going to do my job, and my job as a defenceman is to shut those guys down, to do my best to do that and be hard on them. I didn’t even know I played nine minutes against them.”
Guhle had much the same assignment against the Golden Knights at home Thursday, getting a heavy dose of Jonathan Marchessault, Jack Eichel and Ivan Barbashev, a matchup that did not go nearly as well (the Canadiens had 21.4 percent of the shot attempts and 25.4 percent of the expected goals with Eichel and Guhle on the ice at five-on-five).
But it was interesting to see how Bruins coach Jim Montgomery managed to get minutes for Pastrnak and Marchand away from Guhle when playing in Boston on Saturday. Pastrnak had slightly more time at five-on-five against Mike Matheson on Saturday than he did against Guhle, whereas that split was nowhere close to being even in the first game between the two.
Let’s see how these next few road games go, but perhaps it’s getting around in the NHL that keeping your top guys away from Guhle might not be a bad idea.
Newhook is adapting to how Suzuki sees the game
A few weeks ago, I jokingly asked Suzuki why he was so difficult to play with. The question was about the difficulty the Canadiens have had in finding a winger to complete him and Caufield, and while he was initially taken aback by the question, Suzuki laughed.
Lately, it’s been Alex Newhook who has been learning to play with Suzuki, and to hear him tell it, it’s not actually all that easy to learn.
But that’s a compliment to Suzuki more than anything else.
“He’s one of those guys where you always have to be thinking that he’s going to try to make an offensive play, it’s not always just simple hockey,” Newhook said last week. “Those guys are fun to play with. I haven’t really done that. I played with guys like that in Colorado a bit, but not a lot being in more of a depth role there. It’s fun, he sees the game so well, always looking to make an offensive play and be creative with it.”
Newhook said playing with Suzuki forces you to be on your toes, to be ready for what he might be thinking and anticipating it instead of reacting to it. When you are used to playing with forwards whose mandate is to get the cycle going in the offensive zone, that can be an adjustment.
“I think it’s gotten better each game,” Suzuki said last Tuesday. “I’m talking to him a lot when we come back to the bench, or in the dressing room. I think he’s been figuring out how to play with me and I’m figuring out how to play with him. … He’s a really good player and he’s kind of just understanding what we’re doing now, so it’s good to see.”
The origins of the serious handshake
Before every game, the Canadiens players have a series of handshakes and rituals they do with each other prior to stepping on the ice. At the Bell Centre, a camera catches the end of this process just before the starting goalie steps through the crowd to lead the team on the ice.
As Slafkovský makes his way to his spot in the line, he’s usually seen smiling or laughing, until he gets to Monahan at the end of the line. Once he sees him, Slafkovský’s face becomes serious, he removes his right glove and shakes Monahan’s bare hand. They nod at each other sternly and then continue with the rituals with other players.
“I think it’s from last year when we started to play together,” Slafkovský said. “Because his glove was already off this one time, so we shook hands. Then we played good, I don’t know but I think we scored, so you’ve got to stick with that.”
Slafkovský has a few other rituals with other players, but none quite as distinguished as that one.
“I have one with Arber where we hit our heads,” he said. “I don’t know, that was Arber’s idea.”
(Top photo of Mike Matheson and Charlie Coyle: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)