Regardless of the initial circumstances of how he came to join the organization, Alex Goligoski is undeniably one of the most important parts of the Dallas Stars right now.
While he may not fit the ideal personification of what a "No. 1 defenseman" is, it's impossible to deny that Goligoski has been the closest thing to one that the Stars have had over the past few seasons. Last year was no exception: like a true #1 defenseman would be expected to do, Goligoski led the entire team in time-on-ice per-game at an average of 23:48, nearly a full minute ahead of the next player (Trevor Daley at 22:52 per game). He also led the team in shorthanded ice time, and came in seventh for the power play.
And, while it might not always look like it, Goligoski has actually done a legitimately good job in that role.
What he brings to the table offensively is no secret. He's a silky smooth skater that plays a very heads-up style of hockey, using his mobility and keen on-ice awareness to move the puck up the ice whether by finding an open forward with a pass or by rushing the puck up by himself. His 36 points last season were modest, and actually a step back from the 42 that he finished with at the end of 2013-14, but are not truly indicative of what he can do offensively when one recalls that Goligoski was the more defensively-oriented half of his regular pairing with the electrifying, free-wheeling rookie wunderkind John Klingberg.
Which brings us to the most polarizing aspect of his game: the defensive side. Standing at 5-foot-11 and only 190 pounds, according to the information listed on NHL.com, Goligoski is a small defenseman, and that brings about some obvious problems defensively. When it comes to forcing big, strong opposing forwards away from Dallas' crease, his small stature is not very well-equipped to do it. The same can be said about winning puck scrums along the boards or making other teams pay through hits.
However, the ultimate measure of defensive success in the NHL is a simple one: how well that player does at stopping the other team from scoring goals. And, by all means of statistical measurement and analysis, Goligoski does a pretty darn good job at this.
According to numbers pulled from War-On-Ice, Goligoski had the third-highest CF% on the team and the third-lowest GA60, despite facing tough competition and difficult zone starts. When you factor this information in alongside his TOI, the picture becomes clear that Goligoski was given a heavy workload last season, but still managed to perform very well throughout.
Goligoski has a bit of reputation for being bad defensively, but after digging through the numbers that reputation seems rather unfair and inaccurate. For the sake of comparison, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that would call Duncan Keith bad defensively, yet Goligoski plays the exact same sort of style and role. If anything, Goligoski is "Diet Duncan Keith."
When talking about "defense" and players like Goligoski, I'm always reminded of something that former Stars head coach Dave Tippett once said, which was examined in depth by Josh Lile all the way back in 2012:
"We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.
"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."
That's the beauty of Goligoski is a nutshell. His skating and puck-moving ability mean that the Stars aren't defending in their own zone nearly as often when he's on the ice. The best form of defense is when the puck is 200 feet away from your net.
An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Goligoski is going to be a very interesting player to follow this year. While the addition of Johnny Oduya will change things up a lot, Goligoski will likely still play a lot of minutes in a Top 4 role for the Stars, but there are a large number of promising young blueline prospects pushing their way up from the AHL. Whether he plays well enough to remain an essential player and earn himself a new contract from the team will be the biggest question.