Don’t sleep on Matt Irwin as an important addition to the Vancouver Canucks’ roster
Photo credit:© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
2 months ago
One could be forgiven if they assumed that the Vancouver Canucks had only made three NHL-level signings on the opening day of the FREE AGENT FRENZY ’23.
By now, you’ve heard plenty about Carson Soucy, Ian Cole, and Teddy Blueger. Each has received headlines, breakdowns, sizzle reels, and the like.
But in the immortal words of Yoda, “there is another.”
Based on the lack of coverage, one might assume that Matt Irwin is a signing on par with perhaps Zach Sawchenko, Arturs Silovs’ presumed backup in Abbotsford this season. But that’s really not the case. For one, Irwin is a veteran of 461 games across 11 NHL seasons. For another, he brings plenty more to the table than the average extra defender, and may just prove a particularly savvy signing as the year winds on.
Now, to be clear, an ‘extra defender’ is exactly what Irwin was signed to be. He inked a one-year, two-way league minimum deal carrying a cap hit of $775,000. As it currently stands, he ranks anywhere between sixth and ninth on the Vancouver blueline depth chart. He’s definitely behind Quinn Hughes, Filip Hronek, Tyler Myers, Soucy, and Cole. He’ll be in direct competition with the likes of Guillaume Brisebois, Noah Juulsen, Akito Hirose, Jack Rathbone, Christian Wolanin, and more come training camp.
But while most of those players can and probably will go down to Abbotsford, there’s little doubt that Irwin was signed for an NHL role, even if that role finds him largely in the pressbox.
Which is important to note, because as any long-time fan of the Canucks knows, injuries happen a little more frequently in Vancouver than elsewhere, and those designated pressbox-sitters are always called to action eventually.
Last season, the Canucks went in with a top-six D that included some mix of Hughes, Myers, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Luke Schenn, Riley Stillman, Tucker Poolman, and Travis Dermott. Not too long into the campaign, Ethan Bear was acquired.
And then Poolman and Dermott went on to miss the majority of the season, and several other defenders experienced short-term ailments. As a result, Kyle Burroughs — who went into the year in much the same spot as Irwin now sits — wound up playing a career-high 48 games.
The point to be made here is that Irwin might not be lined up for all that many minutes in the current offseason vacuum that exists around the roster, but that vacuum will disappear quickly once the actual practices and games start occurring, and, inevitably, he’ll wind up playing for more than anyone would have reasonably expected.
Which is why it’s good news that, as far as extra defenders go, Irwin looks to be a pretty darn good one.
It’s not just the experience, although that’s obviously the first thing one notices about the 35-year-old Irwin, now the oldest player on the active roster. Those 461 games have come with six different NHL franchises, and they’ve been accompanied by 47 playoff games, too.
Irwin has often played the role of a seventh or eighth defender, but not always. He was a lineup regular in San Jose as a sophomore, continued the year after, and then did a stint in Boston where he only played two games.
Then came Nashville. For the Predators, Irwin wasn’t just a regular, he was occasionally used in a borderline top-four role for much of the 2016/17 campaign. And don’t go thinking that this was just because it was a weak roster, either. Irwin and the Predators went to the Stanley Cup Finals that year, with Irwin playing 22 games along the way with an average TOI of 11:54.
So, when we cite experience, we’re not just talking about being around for a while. Irwin has a history of contributing.
His games played began to dwindle thereafter, but Irwin always found a way to get out on the ice. The 2019/20 season, for example, saw him cobble together 36 games across three different teams. Subsequent seasons of 24 and 17 games, respectively, gave way to a 61-game run with the Washington Capitals for 2022/23, the third-most games Irwin had ever played.
Which brings us to the present day.
Irwin should not be expected to bring much offence to the table. He’s got 25 goals and 93 points through those 461 games, with career highs of six goals (set in his rookie season) and 17 assists (set as a sophomore.)
What Irwin does offer, however, is a surprisingly steady history of defensive results.
Pro scouts describe Irwin as having good mobility and a fine range of coverage, as well as a minimally-acceptable ability to move the puck. That might not sound exciting, but it’s the sort of profile that translates roughly to “non-disastrous,” and that’s music to a Canucks’ fans ears.
Irwin has most often posted a positive goal differential and analytics fairly consistently in the black, including a career-high Corsi of 56.10% as recently as 2021/22.
He almost always ranks high on his team in terms of hits and blocked shots per 60, and he hasn’t slowed down much with age. Irwin through a career-high 117 hits for Washington last year, and threw in 75 blocks to go with it. That comes more naturally to a player starting 62.6% of his shifts in his zone, but it still says a lot that Irwin was trusted with such deployment. These minutes were typically against bottom-six competition, but Irwin still only allowed 31 even-strength goals against all year, which is a fine job of shutting down the opposition.
It is on the penalty kill in particular, however, that Irwin will truly shine.
We already mentioned Irwin on a previous article about the Canucks’ overall improved PK situation, but his accolades bear repeating here. Irwin killed just under a minute per night of penalties on average for the Capitals last season, and during that time he allowed just 2.17 power play goals against per 60.
Sounds pretty good, right? Sounds like not very much. How about literally the best results in the league?
It’s true. Of all those PKers who killed 50 or more minutes of penalties in 2022/23, Irwin’s PPGA/60 was the lowest rate of any of them. Not just Washington Capitals, not just 34-and-up, not just guys named ‘Matt.’ The lowest of any regular PKer, period.
Does this make Irwin the best penalty killer in the league? No. He was rarely out there against top units, plying his trade as a cleanup PKer against lighter competition. But does that make him a surprisingly effective penalty killer for someone signed to league minimum?
And really, it’s those sorts of answers that are most important when it comes to questioning Irwin’s role for the Canucks in 2023/24.
Should Irwin be in the lineup on opening night if all are healthy? Probably not.
Should he ever be playing top-four minutes? No way.
Will he be able to handle matchups against the likes of Connor McDavid and other top-line players? Nope.
But will Irwin inevitably play plenty of games for the Canucks, and thus play a role in their fate as an overall team? Yes, for sure.
And when that happens, will Irwin deliver consistently solid results?
His own personal history suggests that he will.
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