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Passing on Matt Irwin

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A couple reasons for and against picking up defenceman Matt Irwin. Yes I know this article is a few days late.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Having so many question marks on defence will lead to plenty of discussion every single time a bottom-six defenceman is available on the waiver wire. Frank Corrado caught the attention of Oilers fans last week when the Canucks demoted him to the minors (and eventually snapped up by the Leafs) and we had a similar thing happen this past weekend with a slightly different result.

After two rough games, the Boston Bruins demoted 27-year old defenceman Matt Irwin who they had signed this off-season to a one year deal worth $800,000, making him available to all 29 teams through waivers. The Oilers again didn't bite, but this time, neither did the other 28 clubs.

I was somewhat surprised that Irwin was waived in the first place. He's a decent player who's had success over the past three seasons in San Jose. And the fact that the Bruins gave up on him after two regular season games indicates that there might be deeper issues, but I have no way of knowing. Below is a high-level summary of his possession metrics and offensive contributions between 2012 and 2015, courtesy of Own the Puck:

What we see here is a bottom six defenceman, who can chip in offensively, but doesn't make a significant contribution possession-wise. Not ideal, but nonetheless, he has carved out a decent career playing in 153 NHL games and 181 AHL games.

Another way to measure his value to his club is to review the passing data collected by Ryan Stimson and his group of volunteers. Below is a summary of Irwin's performance from the 2014-15 season.

What this data shows is that Irwin was pretty good at making passes that led to a controlled zone entry and that a lot of his passes led to a shot attempt. His passes didn't always lead to scoring chances in the offensive zone, but he appears to have the ability to move the puck and set up shot attempts.

Rationale

Knowing the Oilers current weakness on defence and Irwin's past success, why on earth would the Oilers pass on him? Two reasons: there are some underlying issues with the player, and second, the Oilers would have to shuffle their entire defence core if they claimed him.

One thing to consider is that Irwin's best years (2012-13 and 2013-14) happened when his regular partner at even-strength was Dan Boyle. Irwin complemented Boyle, a right-side, right-handed offensive defenceman, very nicely with the pair often playing with talented forwards including Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. Boyle was the real driver of the pairing over the two season as he'd do better possession-wise without Irwin (54.5% CF) than Irwin without him (48.0% CF), but nonetheless, they put up decent numbers together (53.6% CF)

Matt Irwin (Even-strength)
Team Season Gm TOI/Gm Points P/60 CorsiFor% (Rel) Zone Starts % (Rel) Common Linemate
S.J 2012/13 38 15.96 2-5-7 0.69 54.43 (+4.7) 53.54 (+7.14) D. Boyle
S.J 2013/14 62 15.70 1-11-12 0.74 50.15 (-4.4) 50.62 (+2.15) D. Boyle
S.J 2014/15 53 15.20 7-8-15 1.12 51.49 (+0.01) 52.99 (+4.08) S. Hannan

Last season, with Boyle leaving the Sharks, Irwin was paired often with Scott Hannan whose years of being an offensive defenceman were well behind him (Source: Hockey Analysis). The pair didn't do great together (only 46.7% CF), with Irwin's possession numbers improving slightly, but point totals going up. It's also worth noting that Irwin took a higher proportion of the on-ice high danger scoring chances, likely because Boyle was gone. Not a bad season, but the Sharks missed the playoffs.

The Bruins apparently didn't know Irwin's history of being a support player for offensive-minded defencemen and paired him with rookie Zach Trotman in his first regular season game, and a more defensive-minded partner in Kevan Miller in his second game (Source: Natural Stat Trick). Now I get that NHL players should be able to play with anyone, but these are subtle things that should be taken into account.

Oilers

Now, if the Oilers were to claim him, the safe bet would be that Irwin would be added to that third pair which has featured Reinhart-Gryba in the first game and Ference-Gryba in the second. But knowing that Irwin is a left-side defenceman who has done well with a right-handed offensive defenceman, my guess is that his likely partner would be Justin Schultz. On top of that, McLellan would likely shelter Irwin, similar to what he did with him in San Jose. That wouldn't be ideal, as McLellan already has enough players he needs to shelter, so I can't envision the head coach signing off on the waiver claim.

Bringing in Irwin would also likely set off a number of changes to the defensive unit, including shifting Sekera to the right-side, which honestly wouldn't be a terrible idea at this point. The defence core would look something like this:

Klefbom-Sekera

Irwin-Schultz

Reinhart-Fayne/Gryba

Would this be an improvement from what the Oilers  have today? I'm not entirely sure. The Oilers would have yet another defenceman that has plenty to prove and would likely rotate him in and out of the lineup. On the other hand, someone like Irwin could turn out to be a perfect match for Schultz and the rest could be history. What we do know at this point is that the Oilers seem set on running with what they have will make an assessment (hopefully) down the road.