by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
You have to keep your eye on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton rookie defenseman Alex Goligoski.
Opponents have already learned that. Under some circumstances, teammates are finding that out.
Sure, Goligoski, as a newcomer, will dutifully help load the team bus.
"The vets don’t let us rookies get away with anything," Goligoski said.
Then he’ll climb aboard and coyly claim his revenge. He’s been known to take a coin or two from his buddies in the poker games that help pass the time.
A season’s worth of practice has made him pretty sharp. His latest haul of lunch money came on the trip from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to Hershey for Game 1 of the playoffs.
"I don’t know that I’m that good," Goligoski said. "It’s just (experience from) hockey road trips over the years. I’d say I’m above average. I wouldn’t say I’m the best player."
He won’t need to be if he keeps making a name for himself as an up-and-coming playmaker. Goligoski, a second-round pick by Pittsburgh in the 2004 draft, compiled 10 goals and 28 assists this season and created enough good first impressions to earn league all-rookie honors.
And if you buy into the notion that there’s no true rookies at this point in the season, Goligoski, 22, is exhibit A. He had a six-game scoring streak near the end of the season and has transitioned into the primary start-up guy on the power play for the East Division champs.
"We put a lot of pressure on him. He’s created a lot," said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Todd Richards. "He’s done a lot for our team."
At Goligoski’s position, everything comes back to patience. His mother, Paula, runs a day care center in Grand Rapids, Minn. At times, there can be as many as eight youngsters running around. When Alex’s dad, Dan, tells him to help his mother for awhile, Alex learns the true meaning of sacrificing your body for the team.
"I play with the kids once in awhile until I can’t handle it any more," he said. "At times it can get pretty out of control. They all seem to like to tackle me."
At the University of Minnesota, where he played three seasons, Goligoski was one of the best offensive defensemen in the country. His 39 points last year ranked second among NCAA defensemen and he was also named the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American.
But he came out of college with a lingering shoulder injury that bothered him in camp and forced him to take a deep breath and slow things down again.
"There was definitely a learning curve for me. There were times I struggled at the start of the year," Goligoski said. "I hadn’t learned how to play. In college, you can go out there and skate all over the place. It’s more a smart-man’s game here."
Goligoski’s had the perfect mentor in that regard. Richards is a former defenseman, also out of the University of Minnesota, who in the 1990s was one of the best creators in the AHL and IHL.
Richards has created a storage bin of the ABCs of that role, from how to read the rush to judging time and space to making sure your defensive partner has his head up before you pass him the puck.
The coach has it all stored away on his computer. He hasn’t necessarily shared it all with his protégé in one or two sittings, but then again he doesn’t need to. The checklist comes out in dribs and drabs to Goligoski, who then locks it away in his vault.
"He’s a smart player. Not a lot of the stuff I say to him is new," Richards said.
At times, instinct and natural gifts take over for Goligoski. Richards beams over his natural speed, a skill that makes him tough prey for opposing forecheckers.
"The game has definitely come easier than it was," said Goligoski, who contributed two assists in three games with Pittsburgh this season. "I feel like I’ve seen enough and been through enough so that nothing new can jump out at me."
Typically, it’s the other way around, with Goligoski’s offensive sense and passing ability putting opponents on the defensive.
"You just anticipate things maybe better than someone else would. I’ve always been more of an offensive defenseman," he said of his knack. "I’ve always been surrounded by good players, too. It’s a combination of playing for a long time and being able to do things on the ice."
And he means all over the ice. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton allowed the second-fewest goals in the AHL this season (187), and Richards wasn’t going to put anyone out there who threatened that status. Despite the gambling nature of his game, Goligoski came in with a plus-15.
"In college, we could score 4-5 goals every game. You could give up a few here and there," he said. "We learned pretty quick we had to defend (with the Pens). You can’t get away with things like turning the puck over. The players here are so good that if you turn the puck over it will wind up in the back of your net."
Those types of hiccups are the price of learning in the regular season. Even when skating with more pressure on his shoulders, Goligoski knows such mistakes are unacceptable in the playoffs.
"I’m not nervous or anything," he said. "I’m excited. Emotions will be a lot higher than they were for game 78 of the season. It will be fun."
For this one instance, Goligoski will be happy to drop anything resembling a poker face.
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.