ST. LOUIS – There are two ways to look at Sharks defenseman Brent Burns lining up at forward against the Blues on Tuesday night.
The pessimist asks, did the Sharks really trade Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first round pick to Minnesota for a third line forward, when Burns was supposed to be, essentially, the long term replacement for Dan Boyle as the team’s number one defenseman?
The optimist would say the Sharks’ defense hasn’t been the reason San Jose has just two regulation wins in its last 20 games, and even though Burns is healthy, now is not the time to tinker with the blue line corps.
That includes defenseman Matt Irwin. The 25-year-old rookie seems to have secured a place in the lineup, at least for now. He’s played in every game since he was recalled on Feb. 26, and has done an admirable job at getting shots through from the point, something that the Sharks had been struggling with until recently.
On Sunday in Colorado, Irwin recorded a whopping eight shots on goal against the Avalanche, just the 10th time in franchise history a defenseman has recorded that many. Boyle has done it four times (Tom Pederson, 2, Rob Blake, Christian Ehrhoff and Gary Suter are the others).
On March 9 against St. Louis, Irwin scored his second goal of the year on a slap shot on a Sharks power play.
“Just trying to get them there I guess, can’t really say much else. Just get them there, and hope guys get to the net,” Irwin said on Monday.
He continued: “I think that’s part of my game, is getting pucks to the net and using my shot. That’s one of my assets. [Sunday night] I got them there, and unfortunately we didn’t get anything off of them, but you keep getting eight a night, something good is going to happen.”
Irwin made a good impression after he made the opening night roster, playing in nine of the first 10 games before he was sent back to Worcester. Even when he was reassigned, there was little doubt he would be back. He’s the only other Sharks defenseman besides Boyle with more than one goal (he has two), and with five points, he’s tied with Brad Stuart and Marc-Edouard Vlasic for second on the team in scoring among defensemen despite playing in just 16 games.
Irwin is averaging 19:21 of ice time a night, fourth among defensemen, including a little more than two minutes on the power play. That the coaching staff has put so much faith in him, makes him feel good.
“Absolutely, and that comes with shooting the puck, as well,” he said. “That’s part of my game. I’ve been a power play player for a while and that’s one of my strengths. Hopefully, we can just get that unit going a little bit more and get it [to be] more effective.”
Of course, it’s not been perfect. Irwin turned the puck over against the Blues on Tuesday at the offensive blue line, leading to a David Backes breakaway that Antti Niemi stopped. On March 2 at Nashville, Irwin’s turnover led to the only goal for Nashville by Gabriel Bourque in a 2-1 Sharks win on a similar play.
That misplay against Nashville resulted in Irwin coming out of the lineup the next game, and it’s evident that McLellan values Irwin’s ability to get rubber on the net as the team struggles offensively. On Tuesday against St. Louis Irwin wasn’t nearly as effective in doing that, registering just two shots, but he did have eight attempts blocked - a huge number.
Some of the veterans on the team might want to take notice of Irwin’s shoot-first mentality, according to the coach.
“Matt Irwin has a great shot, he’s willing to shoot it, and when he gets the puck he wants to shoot it,” McLellan said before the Blues game on Tuesday. “For a young defenseman who’s playing with a Dan Boyle or some of our veteran forwards, they often get nervous and want to share the puck and get it back to the dominant veteran.
“He’s showing a willingness to shoot, which is a great thing. Some of our veterans could show a willingness to shoot more, and get it through.”