A long-running frustration with the Minnesota Wild is that they'd drafted Marco Rossi to be a No. 1 center, only to steadfastly refuse to let him play in that role. When the Wild needed center help in the 2021-22 season, they didn't bother calling Rossi up from the AHL, even after scoring 38 points in his first 34 games. The next season, Minnesota wouldn't audition a struggling Rossi on the top line, even to spark him. Not even a strong showing for the Iowa Wild or Joel Eriksson Ek's injury could get Rossi to displace Sam Steel from No. 1 center status.
Once again this season, the Wild didn't have a bonafide top-six center to complement Eriksson Ek, but they started this season breaking Rossi in on the third line. For a player whose problem had been getting points, not playing defense, it was curious to see Rossi being paired with the not-particularly-dynamic Marcus Foligno or Freddy Gaudreau.
But the Austrian center decided to do all the dynamic stuff himself, and Dean Evason finally placed him on a line to spark both Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy. Evason changed up that line, but while Mats Zuccarello swapped in for Boldy, Rossi stuck around. And thus, the Wild's top line was born.
The Wild unveiled their new-look top line in Sweden, and they've spent the last two weeks or so looking every bit the part. Although their losing streak continued in Sweden and in the next two games, it's arguable this top line sparked Minnesota's turnaround. The Wild still found ways to lose, but they played their opponents much tougher. It's that foundation on which John Hynes was able to build Minnesota's four-game winning streak.
And it's all come with Rossi anchoring the top line. Contrary to concerns about the Kaprizov, Rossi, and Zuccarello trio not having the collective size to stay together as a line, they're finding success and playing strong on the puck. As a unit, they've outscored their opponents 7-2 at 5-on-5 play.
Their underlying numbers might not quite support that level of dominance, but it's very close. The Wild's new top line currently is controlling 61.2% of the expected goal (xG) share at 5-on-5 play, which ranks 20th among 161 forward lines with 50-plus minutes at 5-on-5. That sort of dominance compares very well to lines stuffed with top players, like Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner-Tyler Bertuzzi (62.5 xGF%), Tim Stützle-Claude Giroux-Mathieu Joseph (61.2 xGF%), and Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust (60.0 xGF%). Not bad company.
Not surprisingly, this is the best of the Wild's forward lines this season by a healthy margin. Thanks to a rough start and injuries causing near-constant line shuffling, the Wild only have five forward units who've played 50 or more minutes together.
Here's how they stack up:
Kaprizov-Rossi-Zuccarello: 61.2 xGF%
Boldy-Joel Eriksson Ek-Marcus Johansson: 55.8%
Brandon Duhaime-Connor Dewar-Vinni Lettieri: 48.9%
Kaprizov-Ryan Hartman-Zuccarello: 48.2%
Foligno-Eriksson Ek-Patrick Maroon: 47.0%
With Minnesota's poor start, it's not a shock that they've had lines on the wrong side of controlling play. What might raise some eyebrows is how the team's two worst lines contrast to Rossi's top line. The worst is an Eriksson Ek line stacked with size, in contrast to Rossi's 5-foot-10-and-under group. Next up is that same top line, with Hartman swapped out for Rossi.
The latter is important because it highlights that Rossi is no passenger on this line. Not only does Rossi have seven points in eight games since Evason put this line together, but he's doing the work in the offensive zone that sets himself and his teammates up for success.
Former Iowa Wild coach Tim Army once told Zone Coverage's Joe Bouley, "[Rossi's] going to do some things that bring you out of your seats, but I think the genius of his game is just he does so many things well, and he's so subtle."
Army isn't wrong. Rossi excels in the "little things" that might go unnoticed. Watch Rossi closely, and you'll not only notice those "little things," but you'll also realize that Rossi makes those little things look spectacular. He's unbelievably strong on the puck, keeping plays alive by getting to lose pucks, winning puck battles, and keeping it on his stick through traffic and pressure.
Speaking of traffic and pressure, Rossi takes on the qualities of other, bigger Wild centers in Eriksson Ek and Hartman by getting to the net regularly. Over 40% of his unblocked shot attempts (22 of 54) at 5-on-5 have come within 15 feet of the net. So have four of his seven goals, with another two coming within 21 feet. The 5-foot-9 center is being every bit as rugged as his bigger counterparts.
In addition to the subtleties and determination in his game, Rossi benefits Kaprizov and Zuccarello by playing a lot like Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Corey Sznajder of All Three Zones has tracked microstats for seven Wild games throughout this season, and Rossi's skills have consistently been on display.
Kaprizov and Zuccarello are known for their passing abilities and chemistry. It's a big reason why they are first and second on the team in primary shot assists, with 22 and 13 over those tracked games, respectively. Well, Zuccarello is tied for second, anyway. Rossi has 13 primary shot assists on his own. Rossi's setting up his teammates every bit as much as Zuccarello, whose role on the team is to be Kaprizov's set-up man.
Rossi also gives Kaprizov some much-needed relief in the transition game. Kaprizov is one of the best players in the game at entering the offensive zone with possession, but his running mates have often left that duty solely on Kaprizov's shoulders. On the other hand, Rossi is equally as comfortable carrying the puck into the zone, which gives Kaprizov a reliable Plan B. With 11.6 carry-ins per hour, Rossi sits second on the team behind only Kaprizov (16.4), giving Kaprizov perhaps his only linemate who can lead the rush on his level.
Through all of this, we can see exactly why Rossi brings this top line together. His game doesn't just offer any one thing for Kaprizov and Zuccarello to ride to success. Instead, Rossi is synthesizing the things that make his teammates great into one package, making him a multi-dimensional threat in the offensive zone. Rossi's finally in the right place, and the results are exactly what everyone dreamed of seeing three years ago.
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