There are lots of great stories on this year’s Nashville Predators team. PK Subban, Pekka Rinne, Roman Josi: they all have great stories and are star players on the best team in the West. And they’re playing the Penguins, who none of us like. But one story on that team should stick out to Sharks fans: finally given a chance to shine, Matt Irwin has been playing ten minutes per game throughout this postseason. And he isn’t Nashville’s Roman Polak: he’s been quietly effective on one of (if not the) best defensive groups in the league.
Born on November 29, 1987 in British Columbia, Matt Irwin’s path to the National Hockey League was far from assured. He was something of a late bloomer -- his skills came along too late for him to head to the uppermost echelon of junior hockey in Canada, so he played Junior A hockey for the Nainamo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League. Named that league’s top defenseman in 2007 and 2008, Irwin packed his bags and went to the University of Massachusetts to play for the Minutemen.
Irwin played well at UMass. San Jose’s college scouting team took notice. No one else seemed to — when Irwin announced that he was going pro and was signing with the Sharks, MassLive was surprised. He signed with San Jose May 23, 2010.
Irwin elaborated on how he became a Shark in a 2011 interview with this very blog:
I went to their development camp in July after my freshman year at UMass Amherst to see what everything was about. I learned a lot from the scouts and coaches through video and everything. It was nice to see how an NHL organization is operated. I went back to school and San Jose kept an eye on me during the year, but I didn’t know much about it or if they wanted to sign me as I kept that stuff to my advisor at the time. My parents were more involved in that process than I was, as I was more concerned with hockey at the time and trying to make the playoffs.
Irwin had a brief cup of coffee with Worcester at the end of the 09-10 season, then played his first full year with the Baby Sharks in 2010-11. It was successful: he posted 31 points in 72 games and developed his shot from the point, becoming a vital cog on the Worcester power play. His 2011-12 season was even more productive -- 42 points in 71 games — but most importantly, Irwin stopped shying away from physical contact and became a more confident skater. He finished the season first among AHL defensemen in power play goals, first in shots on goal, and ninth in points.
After spending half of the 2012-13 season further developing his game with the Baby Sharks, Matt Irwin received good news: he was getting called up to San Jose at last. The 25-year old defenseman responded to the opportunity by playing fabulous hockey. Paired chiefly with Dan Boyle, which always helps, Irwin had a stellar rookie campaign that was expertly broken down by The Neutral on this blog’s pages.
Not only has no rookie defenseman had a larger positive impact on his team's even-strength shot differential, no defenseman in the entire NHL has been better in that regard than Irwin this season. Having Dan Boyle as a partner certainly helps but skating alongside a terrific defenseman is hardly uncommon among the rookies on this chart.
Irwin got his first taste of postseason hockey in the 2012-13 playoffs, then broke camp with San Jose in the fall with high expectations. He had been signed a two-year extension by an impressed Sharks brass the previous spring. The coaching staff clearly envisioned that Irwin would be an anchor on the team’s second pairing alongside Dan Boyle, and our season preview bought into that notion:
Ideally, he'll remain one-half of the team's offensively-geared defense pairing alongside Dan Boyle that's slated to play a ton of minutes behind the Thornton line, frequently begin shifts in the offensive zone and generally face weaker opposing forwards in the hopes that they'll be able to produce at even-strength.
It wasn’t quite wishful thinking: across 62 games that year, Irwin produced 19 points, but struggled with some nagging injuries. He became something of a fan favorite among the advanced stats community, as his numbers in relatively sheltered minutes were solid, but the production wasn’t quite there. He played 19 minutes per game of solid hockey, but never quite had the full confidence of the coaching staff, even though he could do things like this:
When Irwin broke camp with the Sharks in 2014-15, he found himself in the doghouse. Relegated to the press box for the first two games of the year, Irwin found himself fighting for minutes all season with an aged Scott Hannan. Clearly punished for a lack of foot speed and relative willingness to cede the blue line rather than step up and play a more physical game, Irwin nonetheless scored 8 goals and added 11 helpers across 51 games that season and wound up 10th on the team with a CF% of 51.6.
San Jose missed the playoffs, Todd McLellan was fired, and Matt Irwin found himself a free agent. Offered a contract by the Bruins in early July, he signed on and returned to the Boston area that had been good to him during his stints with UMass and Worcester. Irwin told NESN:
“On a personal side, a fresh start, I think, was going to be good for me coming out of San Jose, and (coming to) a team with a history of winning with guys in the locker room that know how to win,” he said. “They’re hungry; we’re all hungry this year. I’m kind of coming from a similar situation in San Jose where we missed the playoffs, so everyone here is hungry to get back to where we deserve to be.”
It was not to be. After a rough first two games in Boston, Claude Julien decided Matt Irwin wasn’t his kind of player and sent him down to Providence, where he scored at a relatively prodigious clip. He would not return to the NHL for the remainder of the 2015-16 season.
Offered a two-way contract and a chance to fight for a roster spot on Nashville’s blue line, Irwin played well in the preseason but did not inspire confidence among Peter Laviolette’s staff. They started him down in Milwaukee, and Irwin roamed the Admirals blue line for 4 games. But Anthony Bitteto got hurt, ex-Shark Matt Carle couldn’t fill the role (and would soon retire), and so Matt Irwin found himself on the Predators’ third pairing alongside Yanick Weber. And, playing 12 minutes per game, he fell into a comfortable groove. The elite play of Nashville’s top four d-men has given the Weber/Irwin pairing plenty of shelter, and they’ve made the most of it. Averaging 16 minutes per night, Irwin has found a groove at long last, and was rewarded by Nashville for his play with a mid-season one year contract extension. Irwin said:
“After what my year was last year, it was nothing short of frustrating, that's for sure. It wasn't what I set out for it to be. It was what it was. ... I knew I could still play in this league. I was confident in my ability, and when the Predators came calling, I was so excited for another chance."
And so he has. On Monday night, Matt Irwin will play for Lord Stanley’s Cup. I’ll be rooting for him and the rest of Nashville to beat Pittsburgh. You should too.