WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington Capitals Matt Irwin is no stranger to the road.
Irwin is entering his 10th pro year, this time with the Capitals. Following uncertainty to start the offseason, he inked a one-year, two-way deal with Washington, his sixth NHL club, in late July. Washington’s culture, as well as his former Nashville coaches in head coach Peter Laviolette and assistant Kevin McCarthy, drew him to the club.
“I think the depth they have, the winning pedigree, the expectations to win every year playoffs, it is obviously number one,” Irwin said of the decision to sign with the Capitals. “That was a desire for me, to be a part of something like that and coming to camp and proving that I can play.”
The 33-year-old found himself in very different circumstances last season. He signed a deal with the Buffalo Sabres, eager to take on the role of a depth defenseman. The team also looked strong with Taylor Hall leading the charge heading into 2020-21. However, things didn’t go according to plan.
“It had its ups and downs. Obviously, there’s a lot of excitement going into that year, you know, with everything that was going on with the organization. We had some expectations. We hit adversity like many teams did last year, with the COVID break and we just never really got out of that rut, injuries and such. It was difficult.”
Irwin skated in just 24 games for Buffalo last season, picking up two assists and a +/- rating of minus-10. The Sabres finished with a 15-34-7 record, the worst in the league (37 points).
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Despite a tough year, Irwin said there were positives that came out of it in the end.
“I think a lot of us from that group took a lot and learned a lot from that to move forward… in terms of growth with everything we went through last year,” Irwin explained. “I know personally it’s something I’ve never experienced before. And with those experiences, you can add to your repertoire of experience and just kind of roll with it and move on.”
With Washington’s training camp coming to a close soon, Irwin is still in the mix as one of eight defensemen still vying for a spot. He played in two preseason games, logging 37:10 minutes and registering three hits, three blocks and two shots.
Irwin also spent a lot of time on the penalty kill, showed physicality and didn’t shy away from joining the rush and getting pucks to the net.
The 6-2, 200-pound blueliner said being familiar with Laviolette’s systems is a major help, especially when it comes to vying for a spot down the stretch.
“He’s pretty clear on his messaging and what he wants in the system,” Irwin said, adding, “It was almost like just hopping back on a bike, you know, you’re so familiar with it.”
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Laviolette said the focus is shifting toward the team’s game group and veterans with the regular season quickly approaching. However, he has liked what he’s seen from Irwin at camp.
“I got a long history with Matty. He was with us for a long time at our last stop. He’s a good soldier, he’s a good player, he plays the game hard, he’s a great teammate,” Laviolette said of No. 52. “He has a lot of positive things that he brings to the table… we already know what he can do. We know his value.”
Right now, there’s not a lot of spots open, especially on the blue line. There are eight defensemen remaining, and Martin Fehervary is looking to make his NHL jump while Trevor van Riemsdyk is also expected to take on a bigger role this season. Meanwhile, Michal Kempny is still progressing and making the most of his recovery, and it appears he’s ready to return to regular action this year.
Irwin knows what is expected of him and believes that his experience and versatility will benefit him going forward.
“It’s bringing that depth, that experience. You know, the familiarity with the systems to be able to just kind of jump in and know what’s expected of me, of the system, of the group. That’s just kind of been the message,” Irwin said.
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“I guess that’s the perk of bouncing around when you get to play with so many different players, personalities, coaches, systems,” Irwin added. “So you know, once we’ve been around many teams and as long as I have, you kind of you see some similarities in how each group plays. So a new system isn’t totally brand new at this point. I’ve had touches of I think almost any kind of system. So coming into camp with experience, obviously, it’s less stressful in the sense. Obviously, there’s that anxiousness and wanting to do well.”
Ultimately, the Victoria, B.C. native is ready to make the most of the next stop on his pro journey, whether it be up in Washington or down with the AHL’s Hershey Bears.
“I just kind of bring everything I got every day to the table. That’s kind of been my mindset my whole career, you know, get into camp, earn a spot. Throughout the year, keep earning a spot. I mean, nothing’s really given,” Irwin explained. “I’ve been up and down. I know how quickly things can get taken from you at this level. You can’t take any day for granted, a day in the NHL, it’s still a dream come true, right? So you do as much as you can to be noticeable, be a good teammate, work hard in practice. And then when your number’s called in games, just be ready.”