Opening Night could have set the tone for another slow start for Marco Rossi. After he couldn't get any momentum last season, nor earn his coaches' trust for a postseason run, he kicked off the season with a spectacular-looking goal against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Florida Panthers. Scoring his first career NHL goal after 21 games on night one of the season had to be a tremendous lift to the rookie's spirits.
Only... it didn't count. The referees ruled Marcus Foligno was offside on a challenge, disallowing the goal. Sitting on the bench, you could see the disappointment in the young man's face. Was this going to be another one of those years?
Not if Rossi had anything to say about it. Much to the Wild's delight, he's said plenty with his play on the ice. He immediately bounced back in Game 2 with his first career goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs. His recent three-game point streak has him already quadrupling his career-best in points, with four in eight games.
Rossi is building trust with the coaches and adoration from a fanbase that was (at least partially) terrified of him being a bust as recently as two weeks ago. The hype around him is that he's a different player than what we've seen from him. Is that true? And if so, what's the difference?
The NHL Edge player tracking data actually gives us a little bit of insight into this. We can see players' top speeds, and a year-to-year look shows just how well the time Rossi put into improving his skating last offseason paid off. Last season, his top recorded speed was only 20.3 miles per hour. The league average for forwards was 22.1 mph. Rossi was one of the slowest players in the league last season.
But Rossi's top speed is 22.0 mph this year (compared to a 21.4 average so far this season), putting him in the league's top-20% in that category. He's able to accelerate quickly, near the top of the league in bursts of 18-20 and 20-22 mph. Rossi and skating coach Andy Ness deserve a ton of credit for their work this summer.
But perhaps even a bigger change in Rossi's game is his developing a shooter's mentality. Rossi didn't have that in the NHL last season. However, that's not uncommon to see this from young players. It's easy to defer to players who've been in the league longer than you. It's a nasty trap, though, because it's so hard to succeed in the NHL if you're not firing the puck regularly.
Rossi only registered 13 5-on-5 shots in 208 minutes last season. On a per-hour basis, that's just an abysmally low 3.74, trailing enforcers like Ryan Reaves (4.73 last year) and defense-first defensemen like Jonas Brodin (4.50).
Entering Sunday's action, Rossi didn't even have 100 5-on-5 minutes and already has 18 shots on goal. His 11.72 shots per hour don't just lead the team by a wide margin, but it stands among the NHL's very best. Rossi entered the weekend 19th in the NHL in shots per hour among 321 forwards with 60-plus 5-on-5 minutes. Some of the names behind him include Auston Matthews (11.56), Alex DeBrincat (11.42), and fellow Calder Trophy competitor Connor Bedard (10.94).
So where did this all come from?
Let's not fool ourselves: Rossi's smarts and skills didn't materialize overnight. His production with the Iowa Wild as a 19-and-20-year-old (34 goals, 104 points in 116 games) indicated that the 2020 first-round pick was likely to do big things. Rossi's propensity for getting to the tough areas of the ice also didn't come from nowhere. He was among the best in the AHL at getting scoring chances in front of the net.
It's still tough to doubt that, given the right position to succeed, Rossi could have made an impact last season after his mentality change in Iowa. Alongside Kaprizov or Matt Boldy on his late-season heater, Rossi might not have had to wait so long to shine.
That gets us to the biggest difference between the current version of Rossi and last year's model. Last season, he might well have succeeded in the right spot. This year, he's made it impossible to fail, no matter what. There is a distinction.
We touched on it last week, but Rossi isn't in the "best" position to succeed. His linemates Foligno, Freddy Gaudreau, and recently, Marcus Johansson aren't shooters. Most pegged Rossi's upside at the draft to being something akin to Patrice Bergeron: a two-way playmaking center. Rossi can't play that role on this line. Instead, he needs to play a David Pastrnak-type sniper's role.
And funnily enough, he is. The quality of chances he's getting at 5-on-5 means that Rossi's generating 1.25 expected goals per hour from his own stick. That ties him with the likes of Roope Hintz and Pastrnak for 27th in the NHL. Again, look at the giant names below him on this list: Nathan MacKinnon (1.23), Artemiy Panarin (1.22), and Jack Eichel (1.17). It's really no wonder that the goals are coming, even with a second waived-off goal last night in overtime.
This is culminating in momentum for Rossi, and perhaps something unthinkable until the last 48 hours: a promotion.
Dean Evason has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the Wild's top line, who, despite getting points, is struggling in their overall game. Might that be Rossi? "[Rossi is] dictating to us that he's going to play more because of the way he's playing," Evason told the media after Friday's game. "He just keeps getting better and better every game. He's more confident.... He's been a real strong player for us so far."
As it stands, Kaprizov is in desperate need of a spark, the team's struggling power play is in desperate need of a spark, and the 3-4-2 Wild are in desperate need of a spark. Rossi is one of the few players who have had that spark. He's consistently able to make something out of very little. Perhaps all Kaprizov, the top power play unit, and the Wild need is someone who will refuse to fail.
All data via Evolving-Hockey unless indicated otherwise and accurate as of Sunday morning.
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