By Mary Walsh
The San Jose Sharks are making a splendid start to the season. Despite having their lineup tinkered with by suspension and injury, they keep winning. The only voluntary lineup change they have made from game to game is to their fourth line. There the change has been regular and radical. Matt Pelech and John McCarthy are completely different quantities, one known for fighting and toughness, the other known for tenacity and scoring. Both reputations have been developed primarily in the AHL, over the course of multiple seasons. The Sharks organization knows both players well. Did Pelech move himself up the depth chart, securely ahead of McCarthy by scoring a goal? Possibly, but if anyone believes Pelech will keep doing that they are likely to be disappointed.
Pelech was assigned to the ECHL’s SF Bulls early this season. He was then quickly reassigned to Worcester. After McCarthy’s second NHL game this season, he also spent a day as a Bull before going back to Worcester, while Pelech was recalled. Assigning Pelech and McCarthy to the Sharks’ ECHL affiliate looks like an attempt to keep them nearby for easy recall, while minimizing disruption to the start of Worcester’s season. But so far, they haven’t stayed in San Francisco. They were both reassigned to Worcester anyway.
Todd McLellan has said in the past that he likes to keep options open, use different lineups for different opponents. Is tailoring the fourth line really more important than giving the line time to gel? Five games in to the season, with the other three lines performing so well, why not pick a fourth line and stick with it for a bit?
Did McLellan want Pelech for the game in Vancouver, to give the Canucks pause if they were considering paying special attention to Tomas Hertl? While Pelech’s presence didn’t stop anyone from hitting Hertl, he did score a goal. That is always a good thing to do. Pelech’s goal was timely for him in that respect. There might be more to him than meets the eye.
In today’s NHL, the presence of one known enforcer in your lineup won’t do much to keep anyone from taking a run at someone. It only makes sense that the team should want a fourth line that manages the puck well, executes plays, shoots with some conviction, and basically looks a lot like a third line. So which player, Pelech or McCarthy, fits that role best? They aren’t unknown quantities to the coaching staff. The argument that the season is still young and the coaches need to get to know the players does not apply here.
Perhaps the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” does apply. An unfixed lineup could be what McLellan wants. After all, the team is winning.