Goligoski’s departure puts Minnesota in need of breakout seasons from returning defensemen

Mark Remme

At the press conference following Minnesota’s overtime loss to North Dakota in the NCAA regional final, defenseman Alex Goligoski was asked if he’d leave college early for the NHL.

Goligoski, nursing a broken finger and an injured shoulder – not to mention a heartbreaking loss to a conference rival with a NCAA Frozen Four berth on the line – had no comment.

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate question right now,” he said as he sat next to his visibly emotional defensive partner, departing senior captain Mike Vannelli.

But last week that question was finally answered by Goligoski. After evaluating the health of his shoulder, he decided to forego his senior season with the Gophers and head to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

Goligoski, a second-round selection by the Penguins in the 2004 NHL draft, followed fellow defenseman Erik Johnson to the professional ranks with remaining eligibility. It’s a move most top prospects in Division I hockey take, especially ones that wore the maroon and gold.

“If you would’ve asked me this spring, I would’ve probably said he would sign,” coach Don Lucia said. “That’s the way the game is going right now.”

It was admittedly the worst-case scenario for Lucia and his defensive unit. Without Goligoski, Johnson and Vannelli, the Gophers lose 102 of 134 points tallied by blue-liners last season.

Goligoski was the catalyst of the offense from the blue line. He fit the role of the “offensive defenseman” perfectly, an ever-present part of Minnesota’s game.

Now, with next season just three months away, Lucia and his two-time defending Western Collegiate Hockey Association champions must find the right combination of players on the defensive end that can match up with powerful WCHA offenses while creating scoring opportunities of their own.

It’s a situation that is being met with high expectations and a bit of excitement by defenseman Derek Peltier, who will be the lone senior in the defensive ranks next year.

“It’ll be a challenge for sure,” Peltier said. “But it’s a good opportunity for all the ‘D’ that we have. There are a lot of spots to fill.”

Peltier tallied 12 of his 15 points last season after Dec. 29, a promising feat considering he posted three, two-point games in the process.

But it was the lowest point total of Peltier’s three years at Minnesota, and his presence will need to improve if the Gophers hope to fill the significant offseason departures.

David Fischer and R.J. Anderson recorded just 11 points in 74 combined games last year, and neither has scored a goal at the collegiate level.

Lucia’s primary concern might be the power play, a part of Minnesota’s game that Goligoski, Johnson and Vannelli seemed to thrive on.

He said incoming defensemen Cade Fairchild and Kevin Wehrs have experience leading the man-advantage, and they might get a chance to show their talents early on.

And if Jimmy O’Brien is permanently moved to defense from center, Lucia said he’ll have eight defensemen to rotate around and find the right mix.

Perhaps the return of all offensive starters from last year will allow for a learning curve on the blue line, especially with the scoring potential of last year’s freshman standouts Kyle Okposo and Jay Barriball.

“It’ll be a good situation, having all those forwards back,” Okposo said. “We’ve built chemistry and camaraderie. We won’t have nine freshmen anymore; we’ve got a year of college under our belt.”

And taking into consideration the early offensive departures from around the WCHA, including North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews, St. Cloud State’s Andrew Gordon and Wisconsin’s Jack Skille, there is still more than enough potential to keep Minnesota smiling.

Even if they’ll be without the defensive firepower of years past.

“It’s going to be a good year for us, even though losing those three obviously hurts,” Okposo said. “But coach really knows what to expect from us because we’re not going to have all those fresh-man forwards up front. I think we’ll be OK.”