SAN JOSE – Matt Irwin is too young to remember Larry Robinson. But he knows “big bird.” Big yellow fella from Sesame Street.
“My uncle is a Montreal Canadiens fan, so he's a big Larry Robinson fan,” Irwin, the 25-year-old San Jose Sharks' rookie, said before facing the Vancouver Canucks here Sunday. “I haven't had to ask for an autograph yet (for my uncle), but that might be coming up soon.”
Irwin is already signing autographs for himself. The defenceman from Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island has been a revelation to the Sharks' coaching staff, which includes Robinson, known as “Big Bird” when he played and merely one of the greatest blueliners of his generation.
Robinson and Irwin are getting to know each other.
Undrafted after three Junior-A seasons with the Nanaimo Clippers, Irwin entered the University of Massachusetts as a 20-year-old freshman and played two seasons in Amherst. He earned a free-agent contract from the Sharks, then spent another 2 ½ seasons in the American Hockey League before injuries to San Jose defencemen Brent Burns and Jason Demers helped Irwin make the lineup for the start of the lockout-shortened National Hockey League season.
Until two weeks ago, Irwin's entire NHL experience was one pre-season game.
But through four games this month, the 6-2, 210-pound Irwin was averaging 22:48 of ice time and playing with Dan Boyle in the defence's top four.
“He looks like he fits,” San Jose head coach Todd McLellan said. “And we're saying that after four games in his National Hockey League career, and it just so happens those four games took place in January. Usually by (January of a typical season), a young defencemen in the league is starting to fit in because he's had three months of playing time.”
In Saturday's 4-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche, Irwin scored his first NHL goal on a point shot.
“Ever since you start playing hockey, you want to play in the NHL,” he said. “The last couple of years it's been coming closer and closer to reality and finally this year I got my opportunity and I'm just trying to make the most of it. Everyone has an opportunity at some point, hopefully, and then you've just got to take advantage of it. Pay your dues down in the minors and just keep working hard.”
Boyle knows about working hard and paying dues. Maybe that's why he feels a connection to his rookie partner.
At 5-10, Boyle was literally overlooked in college by most NHL teams. But he has built a 13-year career that includes a Stanley Cup win with the Tampa Lightning and an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada.
“I've never been drafted; I don't know what it's like,” Boyle said. “I just think some people are born to be competitive. When what you want to do is play in the NHL and you get passed over year after year, yeah, you certainly have a chip on your shoulder. Mine is still there. Thirteen or 14 years later, I still have it.
“Matt has played great, better than great. He not only is doing what he needs to do, he's doing more.”
Robinson said it wasn't such a bad thing that Irwin had to learn in the American League and work his way to the NHL.
“His loss was our gain,” Robinson, 61, said of getting a NHL-ready rookie at age 25. “Sometimes they're ready to play at a young age, like Justin Schultz in Edmonton, and other times it takes a little bit longer. The key for any defenceman in the league today is the ability to skate, and he has very good mobility. He's got a terrific shot, is smart, uses his stick well, good size.”
It sounds familiar when Robinson says it.
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