SAN JOSE – For every day that Sharks defensemen Brent Burns and Jason Demers don’t participate in practice, 25-year-old undrafted prospect Matt Irwin gets that much closer to making his NHL debut.
That fact isn’t lost on the Brentwood Bay, British Columbia native, who was in his fourth season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Worcester before being recalled on Sunday.
“For a hockey player, all you’re looking for is that opportunity,” said Irwin, who has one goal and 13 assists in 29 games with Worcester. “If it comes, unfortunately, from some injuries to some guys, and that’s the chance I get, I have to take advantage of it. I’m looking to just impress here in camp and maybe get in the lineup opening night.”
All signs point to Irwin being the next in line if the Sharks have a vacancy in their top six. During a scrimmage on Monday at Sharks Ice, Irwin skated mostly with Dan Boyle. The other pairs were Brad Stuart/Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Douglas Murray/Justin Braun.
While 22-year-old former junior Shark Matt Tennyson is also an option, the job seems to be Irwin’s to lose.
“Matty Irwin has had the opportunity of being to training camp before," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He has played in an exhibition game. He has been around and been in an NHL environment. You’d have to give him the nod as far as experience, what little that is, over a guy like Matt Tennyson."
“We’ll have six defensemen dressed when we play in Calgary on Sunday. Who those six are, remain to be seen,” McLellan said.
Irwin was recalled by the Sharks last season on Dec. 11 but did not play, and was reassigned back to Worcester six days later. It was the first time he spent an extended period of time with the team during the regular season, but he did not suit up for any of the four games during that span.
The experience was not a waste.
“I didn’t get into a game, but got that opportunity to practice with the guys and see what it’s all about, and be in the locker room with them,” Irwin said. “It benefits me in situations like this, when I know I could have a good opportunity to play on this team and getting that experience last year was invaluable. Unfortunately, I didn’t get into a game, but you just have to take the positives with it.”
Worcester head coach Roy Sommer recently remarked that Irwin is the most NHL-ready prospect that has played or is playing in Worcester this season. Irwin himself appears pleased with his game.
“I think it’s good," Irwin said. "Obviously there’s more stuff I can work on and improve like anyone, but I’m happy where I’m at. I feel more and more comfortable up here, as days go by and the time I spend up here. I’m just looking forward to getting the season started, and hopefully contributing to this team.”
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Demers (fractured wrist) skated on his own on Monday morning, while Burns (groin) has yet to make an on-ice appearance despite skating with his teammates in the days before the lockout officially ended on Saturday. Demers skated hard before the team took the ice for its first session at 11 a.m. Burns continues to work out off of the ice.
“They continue to be evaluated, and worked on as we speak,” McLellan said.
On a related note, Braun was a full participant in practice on Monday, but wasn’t willing to say he’s a sure thing for Sunday's game in Calgary. McLellan liked what he saw from the 25-year-old defenseman, though, who will continue to concentrate on building up strength in his injured left hand.
“He participated in the whole practice, both sessions, and was very good,” McLellan said.
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The Sharks once again held two on-ice sessions on Monday. The first, closed to the public, was a standard practice. A little after noon, the Sharks split up into two small teams and held a controlled scrimmage, with several breaks in the action to go over strategy and positioning. It was the first time there was any real physical contract.
“I think some guys are still getting their legs a bit, so every day is just going to get quicker and quicker,” Joe Thornton said. “It’s good to build to that first game on Sunday. You don’t want any injuries, but you want guys feeling good about themselves, skating hard and getting ready.”
Ryane Clowe said: “We had a little bit of bumping and a little bit of grinding, so that was kind of nice. Overall, it looks like the guys are looking pretty good out there and guys are pretty sharp. It looks like guys have got a lot of energy and are feeling healthy, so that’s good.”
The Sharks will continue to hold private skates early before switching rinks and skating in front of any attending fans. Why is the first session not open to the public?
“It gives us a little bit of time to work quietly with people,” McLellan said. “The fun part of practice for fans is watching us scrimmage, and that type of stuff. We’ll do that for a couple days, and then open it up for the rest of the year. We’re not doing anything over there that’s a secret. It just gives us some quiet time to walk through some things and do some things alone, and warm up and go play in front of the fans.”