Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis is obsessed with balance. Here’s why it’s important

TEMPE, Ariz. — Martin St. Louis’ tenets for how he wants the Montreal Canadiens to play should be well known at this point. Play defence as soon as you lose the puck is a big one, and positionless hockey is starting to creep into the picture as well.

But the biggest, by far, is having balance on the ice.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on how Juraj Slafkovský has been playing of late, with good reason. He was the only Canadiens player in Las Vegas on Monday night who didn’t register a single shot attempt. He has four shots on goal in his last four games. He’s losing puck battles. Even at practice at Mullett Arena on Wednesday afternoon, there were several instances where he seemed frustrated when one of his passes got picked off or he lost a puck battle.

The game seems heavy to him right now.

But St. Louis is not looking solely at Slafkovský. He is looking at that entire line with Alex Newhook and Josh Anderson as being deficient. And the big deficiency goes back to St. Louis’ biggest rule of the game of hockey.

“Balance on the ice,” he said simply.

Prior to the start of the season, I sat down with Nick Suzuki to watch video and try to understand what balance on the ice actually looks like. As it turns out, it looks exactly what it sounds like. It’s not that complicated, and it’s not that difficult to identify when it’s being done well and when it’s being done poorly.

“I still think you’re in charge of where you go on the ice. Why do you go there? Well, you go there based on where the opponents are,” St. Louis said. “Because if the opponents aren’t balanced defensively, then there’s a lot of holes … so we can probably play a little more freely, just go where the space is. But when the opponent is in balance, the only way we can play against that is, for us, we have to be balanced.”

According to Natural Stat Trick, over their last three games, the Slafkovský-Newhook-Anderson line has gotten caved in expected goals, shot attempts, shots on goal, you name it at five-on-five. Using the centres of all four lines as a proxy, here is how the Canadiens forward lines have performed over the last three games. (CF% means the proportion of shot attempts the Canadiens took while they were on the ice, SF% means the proportion of shots on goal, and XGF% means the proportion of expected goals, or scoring chances, basically.)

























As you can see, the Newhook line is the only one getting sunk in terms of expected goals. There are a few reasons for that, but the fact St. Louis went so hard on their balance on the ice was telling, especially since that was an aspect of the Canadiens’ overall game in Las Vegas he was so happy about.

How do you work on being better balanced on the ice?

“We’ve watched a lot of video as a line and we understand what we need to do to be effective,” Anderson said.

So, let’s look at some video. I watched all of the line’s shifts from the Vegas game and there are indeed some examples of poor balance on the ice.

Just as a point of reference, the Canadiens’ game-tying goal is an example of excellent balance. Notice how Kaiden Guhle is actually the net front here, so Cole Caufield takes his spot up top to balance things out. But all five players are spread across the ice in almost a perfect pattern, and as a result, Suzuki gets lost behind the net and is able to bury Rafaël Harvey-Pinard’s perfect pass.

There were numerous occasions where the Newhook line seemed to be getting in each other’s way Monday night. They were rarely set up in the offensive zone the way we see in the video above. And even on zone entries off the rush, spacing and balance seem to be a challenge, preventing the line from ever even having an opportunity to get set up in the offensive zone.

This is a Slafkovský entry attempt off the rush, and look at the space Anderson chooses to take.

Or here on a reload, essentially the same thing happens and the puck is quickly out of the Vegas zone.

“The game, to me, is played without the puck,” St. Louis said. “I’m not worried about what the guy with the puck does, it’s the four others, are they balanced? Because if they are, the guy with the puck will have options. If they’re balanced, they’ll always be more open.”

A big reason St. Louis preaches balance is it doesn’t allow one opponent to cover more than one guy. So, entering the zone bunched together like this is probably less than ideal.

One of the big points of emphasis of Wednesday’s practice was rush defence, with St. Louis noting that is something the Canadiens need to clean up as a team.

“To me, it goes from taking the rush to how you arrive,” St. Louis said. “If you don’t kill the rush at the blue line and the puck goes to the goal line, how do you arrive (in the defensive zone)? How do you organize on arrivals so you limit those high-danger shots?”

You probably don’t want to arrive like this.

St. Louis said he remains confident in the line and is going to stick with it. And he refused to isolate Slafkovský from his linemates. The line needs to be better, and he will continue working on how it can get better. And once the line is playing more within the structure of how the team plays, and if Slafkovský continues to struggle at that point, then maybe the questions on his game will be more justified.

But for now, he is just one part of a more general problem with his more veteran linemates.

(Photo of Josh Anderson trying to keep his balance: Ethan Miller / Getty Images) 

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