When you're 8-2-1 to begin a season that most hockey pundits predicted wouldn't be a special one for your team, it's tough to do anything but scoff at criticism, but the Montreal Canadiens should be desperately avoiding complacency after a hot start.
Through October in 2013, the Canadiens were off to a solid, if unspectacular start of 8-5-0, though their goal differential was +20 at that point, with no shootout goals to boost their totals. This season the Canadiens are even on goal differential, though they have three wins in the shootout, so really they're -3.
However goal differential only tells you so much, the Canadiens in 2013 were absurdly lucky to begin the season, Carey Price was stopping everything, the goals were flowing, but what about the play itself? How did it compare to this year?
The Canadiens are controlling the puck more than last year at even strength, though the effectiveness of this controlled possession isn't much different. That isn't to say the Canadiens shouldn't be happy with controlling more of the play at even strength, but there's also the factor that they've been trailing a lot.
Yes, it's true that they're 8-2-1 in spite of trailing a ton. It's true that they have continually shown their resiliency, their character, fighting back in games they're down to steal points in the standings, but that can't be done on the regular over 82 games. The Canadiens have been very unlucky to be scored on first in nine of their first 11 games, and that surely won't be continuing for much longer, but the problem is that the Habs haven't been giving themselves the best chances to score first.
When you limit the sample to when the score is close, which is defined as within one goal through the first two periods, and tied in the third, a different story emerges.
The Canadiens have actually been outplayed while the game is within a goal and made their impact felt on games only once they're down by multiple goals.
The good news
Possession statistics are predictive once there's a big enough sample size, but 11 games isn't a big sample. Montreal was a very good possession team in October last season, then they crashed for about 40 games into nearly Buffalo territory, so what has happened doesn't mean it will continue to happen, though it is much easier to get worse than get better.
Right now, what this data is good for is only to tell us how the Canadiens have played so far, which quite honestly, isn't very good. However they have accumulated 17 of a possible 22 points while not playing their best hockey, which isn't a bad thing, as long as the Habs recognize the problem.
The roster the Canadiens have at their disposal is much, much better than the one they had last season. Michel Therrien has been favouring his lesser players, foisting grinders like Brandon Prust and Dale Weise onto scoring lines, and as of practice on Saturday morning, Weise has been placed with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, but at the very least, all of the Canadiens' lesser players can still play hockey.
Time for some convincing
The problem with the Habs just won't go away though. Throughout Michel Therrien's tenure, he has consistently failed to bring the best lineup to the ice game in and game out. Jiri Sekac and Michael Bournival are undoubtedly more talented, more effective players than Travis Moen at this stage of his career, yet they sit. Perhaps Therrien doesn't want to suffer through their rookie mistakes, but at some point, if they're ever going to learn, he has to.
We saw the same hesitancy with Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi last season, a complete unwillingness to let them learn and adjust to the NHL level, which led to way too much Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray, until the Habs had their backs against the wall and Beaulieu stepped in with two excellent games against Boston.
This Canadiens roster is excellent, they're possibly the most well rounded team in the Eastern Conference, but their play leaves a lot to be desired. They can win games, they can come through in the clutch and steal points, but they're not convincing yet.
This team is ready to be a contender, but from the coaching staff down to the bottom of the lineup, they need to do more to convince us they can reach that potential. Right now potential is all it is.