SUNRISE, FLA. – Need another example of how quickly and drastically perceptions of a sports trade can shift over time? Here’s one: for the first few years after it was consummated, the 2011 trade that sent blueliner Alex Goligoski from Pittsburgh to Dallas for winger James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen was judged to have been won, and not by a little, by the Penguins. To be fair, the verdict was hard to deny in the first full season after the trade, as Neal put up a 40-goal performance for the Pens in 2011-12 and Goligoski wasn’t improving on the steady numbers he posted before leaving Sidney Crosby & Co.
But nearly four years later, Neal and Niskanen are former Penguins (the former traded to Nashville this summer; and the latter gone to Washington as a well-paid free agent), and Goligoski – who set personal bests in assists (36) and points (42) last season – was Dallas’ third-best point-producer and averaged more minutes (24:18) than any of his teammates. In the final 13 regular season games of 2013-14, his time on ice average jumped to between 27-29 minutes a game; and in Dallas’ first round playoff series against Anaheim, he never played fewer than 26 minutes in any of the seven games and in Game 5 he played 32:48.
Turns out ex-Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk wasn’t robbed at all on that trade. Turns out Goligoski has turned out just fine and has never been in a better place in his career: as part of a productive No. 1 defensive pairing with Trevor Daley; and on a Dallas team with heightened expectations after veterans Jason Spezza and Alec Hemsky were acquired. Like every player who's jumped over NHL boards onto the ice, Goligoski has had a showdown with some form of adversity, and he’s overcome it to show why he’s now considered one of the Stars’ key players and leaders.
“I feel real comfortable (in Dallas),” Goligoski said Wednesday after his team’s pre-season win against the host Panthers. “As my career’s gone on I’ve had more of an appreciation for the process of the game, and just coming to the rink every day and the professionalism that goes with it as you get older. I think I’ve grown a lot the last few years here and I feel as good as ever right now.”
The low point for Goligoski, at least from a public perspective, came last season when Stars coach Lindy Ruff made Goligoski a healthy scratch against Calgary Oct. 24. Ruff didn’t know much about Goligoski’s game, but he did know the 29-year-old got off to a slow start to the year – in fairness, the team did as well – and he most certainly knew the pairing of Goligoski and greybeard Sergei Gonchar wasn’t getting it done. So Goligoski sat out, but there was no sulking on his behalf or fingers extended anywhere but in his own direction.
“Obviously, I didn’t have a great start, and neither did our team,” Goligoski said. “We had to find our way a little bit, myself included obviously. The scratch was warranted. But that’s fine. You put it behind you and keep going.”
In his actions and reactions to the scratch, Goligoski showed Stars teammates and management he was accountable and capable of improvement.
“All he said to me was, ‘I need to be better. When I get back, I’m going to be better,’” Ruff said. “Never blamed it on anybody. And from that point on, arguably our best competitor on the back end.”
“He didn’t whine and complain,” added Stars captain Jamie Benn. “He sat out, he watched and came back more determined. He took it like a true professional.”
Goligoski’s game settled in when, shortly after he benched him, Ruff put him to work with Daley. Although they’re hardly the most physically-imposing No. 1 unit in the league – both players are listed at 5-foot-11 and less than 200 pounds – the duo played effective positional defense last year and excelled at skating the puck up the ice with minimal turnovers.
“He’s stepped up his game every year since he’s been here, and took a big step last year with Trevor,” Benn said of Goligoski. “We expect the same from him this year, and we rely on him quite a bit. He’s one of the smartest players out there, and when he goes back into his end he can take a hit and make a play.”
Away from the rink, Goligoski focuses his attention on a different passion: NFL fantasy football. The Grand Rapids, Minn., native is currently involved in four different leagues and was doing well early in the season thanks to some good late running back picks and one successful gamble in particular.
“I went all in on Jimmy Graham this year – he was my big ‘boom or bust’ guy,” said Goligoski, who added he’d be willing to join Roberto Luongo’s NFL pool next season if the Panthers goalie would have him. “I’ve got a lot of free time, and fantasy football is where I spend a lot of it. With four pools, there’s a lot of players to watch.”
Entering the second-last season of a four-year, $18.4-million contract, Goligoski understands he’s still under pressure to produce and grow. But as he and those close to him will tell you, that pressure is internal.
“He’s one guy that just strives to get better,” Ruff said. “At the end-of-year meeting last season, he wanted to improve in some areas, he wanted to tighten up some parts of his game, and I think that’s the sign of a guy that never says ‘I’m good enough.’ ”
“You just have to put the days behind you, good or bad, and be ready to come to the rink every day and work,” Goligoski said. “As cliché as it sounds, it’s become a fun part of my life.”