NHL

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shark swims with big fish

Irwin steps into lineup, shows he belongs in NHL

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When the San Jose Sharks moved defenceman Brent Burns to forward in March it provided an immediate spark to what had been a lacklustre season to that point.

Burns' physical presence up front allowed the Sharks to move Joe Pavelski to the third line and gave a scoring-challenged team much more depth to help lead the Sharks into the second-round of the playoffs.

Burns' move might not have been possible if rookie defenceman Matt Irwin hadn't proven he could play in the NHL. That gave the Sharks the depth at the blue line that allowed Burns to play up front when he provided 20 points in 23 regular season games.

"He's come in and solidified a position in our lineup," coach Todd McLellan said. "I see him developing beyond his rookie year now and into a veteran type demeanour, a veteran type contribution on a nightly basis."

Irwin had six goals and six assists in 38 games with the Sharks, teaming with veteran Dan Boyle for most of the year to give the Sharks a defensive pairing with two potent puck movers.

"Game after game you start feeling more comfortable and the coaching staff feels more confidence in you and trusts you a little bit more and puts you out in more situations," Irwin said. "The more games you play, the more confident you feel."

Irwin had 2.1 shots on goal per game, the most of any rookie defenceman, and was a regular fixture on the second power-play unit. He has also been reliable on the defensive end and has been a major part of San Jose's success.

He played the first seven games during a franchise-record 7-0 start and then played only three games during a rough February as some of the veterans were back healthy. Irwin resumed his regular role in March when the team turned the season around with the move of Burns to forward.

"We get off to the good start, and Matt Irwin's part of it," McLellan said. "We get healthy and we want to bring some guys back, so Matt Irwin leaves. It doesn't quite work as well for us. So we bring him back in and eventually get back to where we want to do. I think that speaks volumes to how much he's contributed and how much we count on him."

Irwin was rewarded for his strong play with a $2 million, two-year contract that kept him from becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Irwin was undrafted at age 18 and originally signed with San Jose as a free agent in March 2010 after wrapping up a stellar college career at UMass-Amherst when he was second among all NCAA defencemen in scoring in his final season.

Irwin, 25, posted 73 points in his first two full seasons with Worcester in the AHL and started this season there while the NHL was in its lockout. With Burns and Jason Demers hurt at the start of the season, the Sharks needed Irwin in the NHL and immediately paired him with Boyle in a sign of confidence.

"He's been amazing," Boyle said.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2013 B5

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