GLENDALE - The Coyotes, whose roster is loaded with rookies and second-year players, are nearing the end of a season filled with growing pains.
So too, in a different way, is veteran defenseman Alex Goligoski, who signed a five-year contract with Arizona last summer.
Goligoski, 31, struggled at both ends of the ice early this season, but slowly but surely has adjusted to his new team and is impacting games with regularity. He will enter Tuesday's game at Dallas ranked tied for fourth on the team with 34 points and riding a season-high, four-game point streak.
"I think Alex got caught up a little bit in trying to push his game along, and push pucks up the ice and cover off more ice," said Associate Coach Jim Playfair, who manages the team's defensemen. "I think he was trying to chase the pace of play and push it, and as he's gone along here he's settled into just being a calm player and playing his game. He probably put a little pressure on himself coming with a new contract to a new organization and figuring out how we're going to play. As he's gone through that, he's found more consistent play in his game than he did in the early part of the season."
The Coyotes intensely courted Goligoski last off-season hoping he'd sign with the team as an unrestricted free agent and instantly become a key member of the team's core. He did and has no regrets despite the team's position in the standings.
"This season has been great," Goligoski said. "The guys in the room are great, and my wife and I are enjoying the city. It's been a little tough mentally at this time of the year, when you want to be gearing up for a playoff run and we're not. That's when you have to look closely, find the positives and focus on building for the future so we're not in this position again."
Goligoski has played all 79 games this season, his ninth in the NHL. He has quietly been producing points, especially assists, in the latter months of the season and has 28 helpers with three games to go. Only forward Radim Vrbata has more (35). On Sunday at Los Angeles, he notched the 250th assist of his career.
Life also has changed dramatically for Goligoski off the ice this season. He and his wife Amanda welcomed their first child, a son they named Roman, just as the preseason games started.
"Being a father has been amazing," Goligoski said. "It's life-changing, but I'm lucky because my wife knows what she's doing with him and she's made it very easy for me to come to the rink every day and do my job."
The Coyotes have been playing two rookie defensemen - Jakob Chychrun and Anthony DeAngelo - for most of the season. Playfair and Head Coach Dave Tippett are hoping the duo is watching not only how Goligoski performs in games and in practices, but how he prepares for both. They're also hoping all the rookies see how he values team success over individual success.
"We signed him because he has that team first attitude," Playfair said. "He's not about just getting his points, he's about us winning. He recognizes what it took for his other teams to win in the past and he's going to help our young kids learn that."
Defenseman Connor Murphy has been paired with Goligoski this season. Their styles complement each other.
"He's a guy who has gotten better and better throughout the year and I'm really glad we have him here," Murphy said. "I've enjoyed playing with him because he's vocal on the ice in letting you know where he is and what plays to make. He's a smart and steady partner."
Goligoski has scored six goals this season, including one power-play goal and one short-handed goal. His plus/minus rating is minus-8, which is noteworthy considering he averages 23:14 of ice time on a team that has allowed 61 more goals than it has scored.
The Coyotes will play minus defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the final three games of the season because Ekman-Larsson left the team on Monday to be with his family in Sweden following the recent death of his mother. Thus, Goligoski will be counted on more than ever to provide leadership and stability in Arizona's defensive zone.
"There's definitely some good, young talent here so hopefully we'll keep moving forward," Goligoski said. "It's just a matter of continuing to get better. We really have to push through it. Getting better takes work. It just doesn't happen. That's the challenge for our group. It's going to be fun being a part of building something here."