Who cares about a handful of exhibition games?
That was a reasonable question to ask back in February 2014. Up until then, Mikael Granlund had 73 games and over 1000 minutes of NHL duty with the Minnesota Wild. He had only seven goals and 31 points to show for it. Heralded as the Future of the Franchise, many wrote off the Finnish prospect as being an impact player. Then he dazzled for Team Finland at the 2014 Winter Olympics, scoring three goals and seven points in six games.
It was a handful of exhibition games, sure, but it was a hint that Granlund had more to give. He started giving the Wild a better look at it immediately after returning. Counting playoffs, Granlund scored seven goals and 20 points over his final 30 games. He would reach nearly 70 points when he attained his final form with the Wild, undoubtedly an impact player.
Marco Rossi and Granlund are skilled, short, European center prospects the Wild drafted No. 9 overall. Therefore, it's hard to resist a temptation to compare them. They're not the same player, of course. But Granlund used a handful of exhibition matches to springboard success, so that might be instructive as Rossi has (another) dominant preseason.
At first, it would seem like Rossi isn't doing what the Wild are hoping him to do. After leading the NHL in preseason points last year, opponents have held Rossi off the scoresheet through two games. Bill Guerin and Dean Evason weren't discouraged by his defensive play last season; it was the one-point-in-16-game funk that put him out of the team's plans. So what do they have to say about Rossi after the pair of goose eggs?
"Probably one of the best games we've seen [from him]," said Evason after his second preseason game against the Colorado Avalanche. They're seeing him as if he's a different player, and this quote came before a fall on Brandon Duhaime's skate gave him a wicked scar that makes him resemble a Frankenstein-ed Evgeni Malkin (that is a compliment, by the way).
What's going on?
For Rossi to impress the Wild, it's going to be as much about his process as his results. Right now, he's taking the initiative and dominating on the ice, even if it hasn't translated to points. The preseason has given Rossi nowhere to hide. He's only had any significant 5-on-5 time with Pat Maroon, Marcus Foligno, Jujhar Khaira, and Freddy Gaudreau. With all due respect, none of those players are big-time triggermen, and only Gaudreau can be considered a strong puck carrier. When it comes to generating offense, you're on your own, kid. What are you gonna do with it?
The answer has been something like, Run the Offense Through My Damn Self. At 5-on-5 play, Rossi has nearly as many shots (five) as his four linemates combined (six, with five coming from Khaira). But again, it's not about what he's doing; it's how he's doing it. Rossi is leaving no doubt in anyone's mind how badly he wants things to go differently than last year.
For a deeper look at this, we'll have to learn how Natural Stat Trick (where this preseason data comes from) tracks scoring chances. They judge them based on shot location, with anything within the lavender being a scoring chance, and in the aquamarine being a high-danger scoring chance (HDSC). Any attempt on the rush or a rebound will elevate a shot attempt to a scoring chance, and a scoring chance to an HDSC.
Got it? Good. Through 21 minutes of 5-on-5 time, Rossi has eight shot attempts, with seven of them being scoring chances, and three of them being HDSCs. While preseason can present opportunities to torch non-NHL quality competition, thas hasn't been the case so far.
Against the Colorado Avalanche, Rossi played heavy minutes against Brad Hunt, Ben Meyers, and Joel Kiviranta. Perhaps not the strongest competition, but all three are NHLers. The Dallas Stars put him against Evgenii Dadonov, Jamie Benn, Esa Lindell, Jason Robertson, Matt Duchene, Miro Heiskanen, and Joe Pavelski for two minutes or more, each. Rossi's faced very few cupcakes.
Despite that, he's on top of the NHL again. But instead of points, in underlying indicators of success. There have been 23 scoring chances when Rossi's been on the ice at 5-on-5; 20 of them belong to the Wild. Among 483 forwards with 20 or more 5-on-5 minutes this preseason, he's second in on-ice scoring chance rate, 12th in allowing scoring chances, and sixth in generating scoring chances off his own stick.
This isn't a fluke, either. It looks like a massive step forward for the rookie, and in some ways, it is. But Rossi was no slouch in underlying numbers last season.
In total, Rossi's played 85 5-on-5 minutes in the past two preseasons, or seven games. There are 280 forwards who have played an hour of time or more in that span.
Here's where he ranks among this group in various categories:
Points/60: 21st (3.50)
Scoring Chances/60: 19th (11.2)
Penalties Drawn/60: 22nd (2.80)
Expected Goals For/60: Sixth (4.04)
Expected Goals Against/60: Fourth (tied, 1.26)
Expected Goals Share: First (76.3%)
Like last season, Rossi is balling out in the preseason. But unlike the previous year, he's doing it in a way that is opening his coaches' eyes and perhaps even earning their trust. It's hard to worry about the scoring through two games -- when chances come this often, goals often follow.
For a player who struggled to get going in regular season action, preseason Rossi is clearly the two-way, top-line caliber center the Wild drafted him to be. Who cares about seven exhibition games? Maybe we all should.
Think you could write a story like this? Hockey Wilderness wants you to develop your voice, find an audience, and we'll pay you to do it. Just fill out this form.