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. “He’s not only been good I think he’s been better than good. He’s had a tremendous season and he shows a lot of poise. I think that’s his biggest asset right now, his poise out there. It’s tremendous.”
The Sharks had their second straight full practice since finishing their first-round sweep of Vancouver on Tuesday night. San Jose is still awaiting its second-round opponent, which won’t be finalized until after Anaheim hosts Detroit in Game 7 of that series on Sunday night.
If the Ducks win, the Sharks will open the next round in Chicago against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Blackhawks. If the Red Wings win, San Jose will match up with defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles.
The Sharks were swept in the season series by Chicago, although all three games game in February before San Jose found its game. Los Angeles and San Jose split the four-game season series, with the home team winning all four contests. The Sharks won once in a shootout while the Kings won in the season finale when both teams took it easy with little on the line.
The time off has given the Sharks some time to heal after the first round with Demers getting back on the ice this week after missing the final four games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs with a sprained ankle. He worked with the team for part of practice as he gets closer to returning.
“He got a good skate today,” McLellan said. “I believe any time a player joins the group again is a big step. Now it’s going to be full participation before he can play.”
Forward Marty Havlat, sidelined by a lower-body injury in Game 1 against the Canucks, did not take part in practice Saturday and doesn’t look ready to be back for the start of the second round. With Adam Burish already sidelined by an upper-body injury that has knocked him out of the next round, the Sharks are looking at Tim Kennedy, Matt Pelech and Bracken Kearns to play on the fourth line in the second round.