“It is strange that the years teach us patience; that the
shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”
-- Elizabeth Taylor
That quote might be true, but a professional athlete doesn’t have to like it. In fact, he or she probably chafes at the whole idea of waiting for an opportunity. But is a measure of one’s professionalism to wait and be ready when that opportunity presents itself. Matt Irwin, a veteran of five teams and almost 400 regular season games, was signed as insurance – a depth player to be available in a pinch, able to draw on a wealth of experience and situations faced to give the Caps solid minutes when circumstances dictated.
Fearless’ Take… Irwin is not an especially prolific offensive player (22 goals and 84 points in 383 career regular season games going into this season), not particularly susceptible to being penalized (169 career penalty minutes before this season), and a reasonable effective, but not intimidating physical player (566 credited career hits before this season). But his role requires none of that. The trick is for him to step in when needed and contribute to such a degree that the Caps don’t miss a beat if a regular defenseman is out of the lineup. He was valuable in that role; the Caps were 11-6-0 in the 17 games in which he played, 6-1-0 when he logged at least 14 minutes in ice time.
Cheerless’ Take… Only once in ten NHL seasons did Irwin dress for fewer games than the 17 games he skated for the Caps (two with Boston in 2015-2016). He has never been an efficient shooter, ranking 171st in shooting percentatge (3.6 percent) among 215 defensemen appearing in at least 250 games since 2012-2013, when Irwin broke into the NHL. His 3.5 shooting percentage this season was second worst among Caps defensemen appearing in at least ten games.
Odd Irwin Fact… Irwin was second among Caps defensemen in shots on goal per game (1.71), trailing only John Carlson (2.50).
Odd Irwin Fact II… Irwin led all Caps defensemen in hits per 60 minutes (10.05). Since 2005-2006, among defensemen appearing in more than ten games in a season, only Brook Orpik had a season averaging more for the Caps (10.80 in 2014-2015).
Odd Irwin Fact III… Among Caps defensemen playing in more than one game, Irwin had the best shot attempts-for percentage on ice at 5-on-5 (56.0).
Game to Remember… April 12th vs Philadelphia. With the season winding down in its final week, the Caps were finishing strong. In 17 games leading up to their matchup with the Flyers, they were 12-4-1. When they took the ice against Philadelphia, they were looking to extend a home winning streak in regulation to three games, which would be their longest streak of home wins in regulation since late November, then they won four in a row in regulation on home ice.
The Caps got out to a 3-1 lead after 20 minutes and led 5-1 after 40 minutes. Five different Caps had goals, and 12 different Caps had points through two periods. Matt Irwin was not among them. That matter was rectified in the fourth minute. Johan Larsson took a pass from Justin Schultz at the Flyer blue line. Larsson fed the puck cross ice to Schultz at the right point, and Schultz passed the puck along to Irwin just inside the blue line. Irwin’ slap shot from distance eluded several players, including goalie Martin Jones, who was well-screened on the play, the puck sailing past his blocker to make it 6-1, Caps. After Lars Eller scored less than three minutes later to make it 7-1, Irwin notched his second point of the game when he assisted on a goal by Garnet Hathaway. The Caps went on to win, 9-2, Irwin earning the game’s third star off his second two-point game of the season.
Game to Forget… March 22nd vs. St. Louis. Injuries often play havoc with a lineup. Sometimes, a team will depart from the usual 12 forward/six defenseman complement to add a defenseman while subtracting a forward who might be out with an injury. This is what faced the Caps in a late-March game against the Blues. T.J. Oshie was out with a lower-body injury, and the Caps resorted to dressing seven defensemen. Matt Irwin was that seventh defenseman. Not that it mattered. A combination of factors, perhaps not wanting to upset the pairs configuration coupled with the Caps falling behind in the second period, led to Irwin getting no ice time in the game’s first 59 minutes. That’s right, the first 50 minutes. He skated one shift – the last one of the game as it turned out, getting all of 29 seconds of ice time for the game. By almost four minutes, it was the lowest amount of ice time of his career.
Postseason… Irwin did not dress for the Caps in the postseason.
Looking Ahead… Irwin’s one-year/$750,000 deal with the Caps expired with the end of the 2021-2022 season. He has been a well-traveled sort, the Caps being his sixth team in a ten-season career. With the possibility of Alex Alexeyev and perhaps Lucas Johansen (a restricted free agent with arbitration rights) moving up the defenseman depth chart, It is hard to think that there won’t be a seventh team on which he plays next season.
In the End… Matt Irwin is not what one would call an elite defenseman, but he is a solid pro who plays the sort of low-risk game that does not put his team in jeopardy. The trouble is, he does appear to have a limited skill set that makes him an asset that moves around. He will be 35 years old less than two months into next season, which does not make him a more attractive possibility. But he is a professional through and through, and the team that signs him will get a solid, honest effort that can fill holes effectively, even if his days as a regular defenseman might be nearing an end.