Alex Goligoski had high, but realistic hopes.
The rookie defenseman obviously wanted to make the Pittsburgh Penguins' opening night roster in Sweden for Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, but a quick look at the depth chart at the start of training camp made that seem more like a pipe dream than a realistic hope.
Sergei Gonchar. Hal Gill. Brooks Orpik
. Rob Scuderi. Kris Letang
. Darryl Sydor. Mark Eaton.
You didn't miscount. That's seven defensemen, and they were all healthy entering training camp. An eighth, Ryan Whitney, normally a top-four defenseman in the Penguins' rotation, was already put on the shelf with a foot injury, but a December return is likely.
Goligoski asked himself, "Where do I fit in?" It was the appropriate question, and the answer was probably in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
"I thought I could make the team, and that was my focus," Goligoski told NHL.com. "Come in, have a good camp, show them what I can do and hopefully make the team. But, being realistic about it, they obviously have a lot of defensemen here and I was prepared to do whatever."
That whatever has turned into playing a regular shift for the real Penguins, not the Baby Penguins of the AHL.
Gonchar was felled by a shoulder injury that could keep him out until March, so Goligoski made the team. After sitting out the first game of the season as a healthy scratch, Goligoski was inserted for Sydor and hasn't been left out of the lineup since.
He scored his first goal that night in Stockholm on a shot that ruined Alex Auld's shutout with 2 seconds left in a 3-1 Ottawa victory. Goligoski has since scored another goal and is averaging nearly 18 minutes of ice time per night while playing the left point on the first power-play unit and a strong 5-on-5 game.
"It's obviously a tough loss for the Penguins, but it's a great opportunity for me," Goligoski said of Gonchar's injury. "I guess you tell yourself just keep doing the same things you've been doing, take in as much as you can and learn everyday. You have to be a quick learner. It's been moving fast."
Maybe so, but Goligoski hasn't had much trouble adjusting to the NHL game.
"He's not the biggest guy (5-foot-11, 180 pounds), but he's very mobile and he's very smart," Penguins GM Ray Shero told NHL.com. "He defends well. He's got a good stick. So far I think the transition has been good for him and he's gaining confidence."
Goligoski's confidence has soared since the second half of last season, his first as a professional after three seasons at the University of Minnesota. He's from Grand Rapids, Minn.
He struggled in the first half as he was trying to come back from offseason shoulder surgery, but he turned it on and finished with 38 points in 70 regular-season games. He also had 2 assists in 3 games in Pittsburgh.
Goligoski followed up his impressive regular season with a record-setting postseason. In 23 games he scored 28 points, the most ever for a defenseman in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Wilkes-Barre reached the Calder Cup Final before losing to the Chicago Wolves.
"Just mentally, you kind of think back on it and it was definitely something to be proud of," Goligoski said. "It's something you hope to carry into the next season."
Even though he's only 23 years old and only in his second professional season, it seems like it's been forever since Goligoski was an 18-year-old at the 2004 Entry Draft in Raleigh, N.C., where the Penguins made him the 61st pick.
"I wasn't even in college when I got drafted," Goligoski said. "I got drafted after my senior year of high school. Three years of college and my first pro season last year, yeah, it's been a while."
At Minnesota, Goligoski became one of the nation's best defensemen. He capped his career with 39 points as a junior in 2006-07. It was the most by a blueliner in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and second in the nation.
He felt right at home last season with the Baby Penguins. Former Gopher defenseman Todd Richards, who is now an assistant in San Jose, was the coach in Wilkes-Barre. Shero said he and Dan Bylsma, who is currently the coach in Wilkes-Barre, played a major role in Goligoski's development.
"It was a good transition for him last year to spend the entire season, except for three games, in Wilkes-Barre," Shero said. "Todd Richards and Dan Bylsma did a great job with him. He got better as the year went on."
"It's obviously a tough loss for the Penguins, but it's a great opportunity for me. I guess you tell yourself just keep doing the same things you've been doing, take in as much as you can and learn everyday. You have to be a quick learner. It's been moving fast." - Alex Goligoski on replacing the injured Sergei Gonchar
Late in the Baby Penguins playoff run, Goligoski got the call any minor-leaguer dreams of getting. Letang had to leave the team before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final to attend friend and former teammate Luc Bourdon's funeral, so the Penguins needed a seventh defenseman in case of an emergency.
Shero called on Goligoski. Although there was basically no chance that he was going to play and he would only be with the team for 24 hours, Goligoski got a taste of what the big stage. It could prove to be a huge benefit sometime down the road.
"Just being around the guys the day of the game and obviously watching that game, which went into a couple of OTs and they ended up winning in Detroit, it was a really cool experience," Goligoski said. "I didn't go through what those guys had gone through to get there, so it was different but definitely cool to see the intensity and what it took for those guys to get there. It was just a good experience."
One he plans on reliving soon, but on an extended stay.
"Hopefully this year I can see what it takes to get there," Goligoski said. "My focus right now is to earn the respect of my teammates and the trust of my coaches."Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com