Goligoski signs with Pittsburgh

The All-America Gophers defenseman decided Tuesday to dismiss his final year of eligibility. He finished his career with 25 goals and 73 assists.

Mark Remme

Minnesota defenseman Alex Goligoski made up his mind Tuesday: he’s moving on to professional hockey.

In the process, the All-America blue-liner cleared up the one remaining uncertainty surrounding next year’s men’s hockey roster.

That’s the good news for coach Don Lucia.

The bad news is the Gophers’ top-three defensemen from last season are no longer with the team. Goligoski and Erik Johnson both left with remaining collegiate eligibility, while captain Mike Vannelli was a departing senior.

“Inside you’re happy for Alex, and I’m sure it’s a dream come true to find an NHL contract,” Lucia said Wednesday. “But we lose an All-American and probably next year’s captain.”

The 21-year-old defenseman is on the verge of living his ideal profession. Goligoski admitted it’s been his dream to play in the NHL “for as long as (he) can remember.” And although he said it was tough to leave his friends on the team, he said he knew it was the best thing for his career.

Goligoski, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ second-round selection in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, took over three months since the end of Minnesota’s season to decide his career plans.

Much of that had to do with a shoulder injury that he suffered through the second half of the year. Goligoski also played the NCAA Regionals with a broken finger suffered in an earlier practice.

“It makes it a lot easier to sign a pro contract when you can do it with your own hand,” Goligoski said. “I’ve got the full range of motion back and I can do anything I need to. Now it’s just about getting the strength all the way back.”

The 6-foot, 187-pound Goligoski finished his career in Minnesota with 25 goals and 73 assists.

He tallied nine goals and 39 assists in 44 games with the Gophers last season and earned not only All-America honors but also became the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Defensive Player of the Year.

On the flip side, with the big three defensemen all gone heading into 2007-08, Minnesota will need a little extra fire-power from the point. Goligoski, Vannelli and Johnson accounted for 23 goals and 79 assists last season. The remaining defensive unit mustered just 34 points combined.

Lucia said the leadership of lone-senior defenseman Derek Peltier, along with the development of sophomore David Fischer, will be crucial in the upcoming season.

He said the Gophers need the production and the leadership out of Peltier that they got out of Vannelli last season, who not only upped his point totals by 22 points as a senior but also was the definitive leader of the team on the ice and in the locker room.

Peltier said he’s been working this offseason on that part of his game. He said he needs to improve his blue-line presence along with making sure his conditioning allows him to play the two-way hockey that Minnesota defensemen are known for playing.

“The big thing I’m working on this summer is my shot,” Peltier said. “If I keep working on that, it should help improve my threat from the blue line scoring.”

Meanwhile, incoming freshman defensemen Cade Fairchild and Kevin Wehrs will need to quickly become accustom to life in the WCHA while filling pivotal roles on the power play.

“It’ll be a challenge, but it’ll be a great opportunity for the ‘D’ we have,” Peltier said. “There will be a lot of spots to fill.”

But that doesn’t make losing a player of Goligoski’s caliber hurt any less.

“You deal with it,” Lucia said. “We have to worry about the guys we’ll have, not the guys we won’t.”