Matt Irwin on the verge of reaching the NHL

Matt Irwin on the verge of reaching the NHL
By: Andrew Hirsh

Prepared to enter his third full year in the Sharks organization, defenseman Matt Irwin finds himself closer than ever to reaching his goal of skating in the National Hockey League. And with training camp right around the corner, it may only be a matter of time before the 6’2’’ blueliner gets the call-up to San Jose and never looks back.

“He’s NHL-ready,” said Worcester Sharks assistant coach David Cunniff. “He’s giving himself a good chance to make it. If he doesn’t make it to San Jose out of camp he’s going to be pushing people into the (2012-13) season.”

Coming to Worcester straight from UMass-Amherst, Irwin was well prepared to make the leap to the pro ranks after his sophomore year of college. However, he had a lot to work on before becoming a legitimate candidate for an NHL roster. Deemed as a power-play specialist upon his arrival to Worcester, the British Columbia native wasn’t polished at the defensive aspect of the game, and it showed in the number and type of minutes the Sharks coaching staff gave him. But Irwin’s willingness to take constructive criticism from his coaches and change his style of play made a world of difference.

“When you come to the AHL from college, it’s a totally different animal,” coach Cunniff added. “And in Matt’s rookie year, he started off a little bit slow. He struggled defensively. But he’s been doing everything that myself and the other coaches have been working with, and he’s put himself in a great spot by doing so.”

Irwin’s ability to develop into a well-rounded, two-way player has led to his ascent up the Sharks’ prospect rankings—an accomplishment that would have been difficult had he remained solely an offensive-minded player. This evolution has been exemplified no better by his selection to the AHL All-Star game last winter, becoming one of two Worcester players to earn a nomination in 2012.

“Coming in, I think I had a solid camp in San Jose and I turned that over into a good season,” Irwin said of the ‘11-‘12 campaign. “I think it was a good year for me. I started off strong, kind of hit a wall, and found more consistency towards the end.”

 “When he came to us he needed work on his defensive game,” Cunniff said. “He had the offensive talent to see the ice well, a good first pass out of the zone and a great shot. But I think we’re able to teach him a little bit more so he’d be a better two-way player. Now that he’s played for us for a few years, I think his defensive game has improved a ton.”

In his time working with the Sharks’ coaching staff, Irwin was able to improve his defense in a number of specific ways. For starters, his skating got a lot better, including his ability to stop crossing over to avoid falling out of position. Additionally, he became more resourceful with his stick as he learned how to disrupt passing lanes near and around the crease.

“When he came to us as a rookie, I think a lot of people questioned his skating,” said Cunniff. “But he’s one guy when you watch the games you can see stuff we’ve been working on. His skating has improved to the point where he doesn’t put himself in bad situations anymore.”

“As well as the skating, his stick improved a lot. He was able to eliminate a lot of plays last year through the use of his stick, which he didn’t do much at all when he first came here. And it’s had a big impact.”

Despite the progress Irwin has made, it will be no easy task to make San Jose’s roster out of camp. With a bit of a logjam at defense, there may not be a spot for him in the NHL even if he’s ready. And depending on how long that logjam lasts, San Jose’s hand may be forced.

“San Jose has such a great group of D-men now that it’s tough to crack that lineup,” said Cunniff. “We’ve seen a lot of good players come to Worcester and have a tough time cracking the roster (in the NHL). If they send him down because they’re so deep on the back end, he’s going to be forcing management in San Jose one way or another.”

The 2011-12 campaign in the rearview mirror, Irwin is spending his offseason hard at work back home, where he’s been preparing himself for next year.

“We’re working out a lot,” he said.  “We have a group of guys from the AHL and NHL. We’re all skating and working out together. Everyone is looking to get stronger and faster and improve all the stuff you need to win.”

Whether in San Jose or Worcester, look for Irwin to take the next step in his career and continue provide the Sharks organization with a quality, reliable defenseman.


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