Who would have thought that the most polarizing and most talked about Minnesota Wild player leading up to this year’s trade deadline was going to be a forward in Iowa? Yet here we are again, continuing the season-long debate of whether the Wild should call Marco Rossi up to the NHL.
Following his two-game debut with the Minnesota Wild in early January, Rossi was sent back down I-35 to Iowa, while fellow prospect Matt Boldy remained with the big club. Rossi's contract status was ballyhooed about again. In case you need the reminder, Minnesota will burn the first year of his entry-level deal if he plays ten games in the NHL (regular season or playoffs). In that scenario, Rossi’s next, likely lucrative contract will start in the final year of the massive Ryan Suter-Zach Parise buyout cap hits. If they keep him in the AHL, then the contract would start the next season when about $13 million in dead money comes off the books in the summer of 2025. That would leave the Wild in a more favorable situation to re-sign Rossi while also keeping their other blue-chip prospects.
For that reason, many are disappointed and frustrated to see the Wild’s highly touted center prospect remain in Iowa where he continues to produce at a point-per-game clip. With Minnesota’s recent slip in the standings, the calls for reinforcements such as Rossi have grown louder. Some believe Rossi could be the perfect “deadline pickup” with his promotion back to the NHL. General manager Bill Guerin maintains his stance that Rossi requires further development. Guerin has said that Rossi's offensive production is encouraging multiple times, but Guerin has also stated a need for Rossi to develop other parts of his game.
It’s easy to see the highlight-reel goals, look at Rossi’s growing point totals, and accuse Guerin of deliberately holding back the talented Austrian because of his contract status. Therefore, it’s time to dig in further to see if Guerin’s assessment of his young center has any merit. I dug into the film for more answers, watching every one of his shifts from four different games since his demotion back to Iowa in early January. Are you sitting down? Because Guerin has some ground to stand on here.
Before I dig into the film and dissect Rossi’s play in as detailed a way as possible, let me start off by saying I am confident Rossi will be a No. 1 center with the Minnesota Wild as soon as next season. In fact, after pouring through the film, I think he could make an impact on the Wild right now if he was called up. When he has the puck in the offensive zone, there are few (if any) center prospects in the history of the Wild who impact a game like Rossi.
Anytime No. 23 in white touches the puck in the offensive zone, fans rise to their feet in anticipation. His ability to create in small areas, accompanied by a lethal release, makes it no surprise his AHL point totals are on par with other superstar prospects to play in the league.
But while it’s true Rossi is an offensive wizard, there are certain areas of his game that need improvement. When picking through which games to watch, the four I picked had varied box scores since the AHL doesn’t offer much for advanced statistics. Rossi recorded at least two points in two of the games I picked. I was hoping to find context to Guerin’s comments on if Rossi was scoring points the “right way.” The other two were randomly selected games where Rossi didn’t record a point and was a minus in the +/- category. My intention there was to give Rossi a chance to show he has a positive impact on games even when he doesn’t show up on the scoresheet. It only seemed fair to the 20-year-old forward.
Throughout the hours of tape, two concerning parts to Rossi’s game jumped off the screen. They were glaring due to how inhibiting they could be to his ability to create the same sort of impact at the NHL level should the Wild call him up this season.
Engaging More in Physical Battles
By suggesting that he can be more physical, I'm not saying Rossi is not a two-way player or that he only cares about offense. He's actually phenomenal with his stick in the defensive zone and rarely finds himself out of position as the support player between his defenseman and the net. Rossi truly is a playmaking 200-foot center every team desires. However, his lack of aggression at the point of attack leaves you wanting more.
Here, Rossi engages with the opposing defender in the corner for a loose puck. His above-average skating gets him into position every time, yet Rossi has a tendency to roll away from engaging physically and opting to reach in with his stick to find loose pucks instead, leading to a low number of wins during loose puck battles.
Below is another example of this. I show this one not so much for the lack of physical contact, but for the negative in Rossi’s game that sometimes results from it.
As noted in the description, the referee does Rossi no favors here, acting as sort of a screen for the opposing forward. But Rossi’s angle is less than desirable as well. That tendency popped up multiple times during these games. Rossi has a slightly off approach, meaning he is defending on the back side of his hip rather than his hands. As a result, Rossi has to reach with his stick and narrowly avoid a penalty. Maybe you could argue that the Wild drafted Rossi to score goals and create offense, not to be a physical center. Fair enough, seeing as he is still clipping along at a point-per-game. However, Rossi's lack of physical contact and conscious decision to opt for more stick play has him also producing at nearly a full penalty minute per game in the AHL too (38 PIM in 40 games.)
And Rossi's tendency to pull back from physical contact will drive a coach and GM mad if it directly leads to a goal the other way. Here Rossi approaches a loose puck near center ice and has time to ready himself for the contact from the oncoming forward. He's able to protect the puck long enough to either make a play or wait for the support of a teammate. Instead, he slows up, reaches in with his stick, and weakly pushes the puck to an opponent at his own blue line, while also falling to the ice as he attempts to avoid the oncoming check.
The turnover above led directly to a goal against about five seconds after this clip ends. I’m not saying Rossi is afraid of contact, there are plenty of instances where he attempts to hold his own. But after watching all four games, there is an argument to be made that while clearly skilled and gifted offensively, Rossi is still a 20-year-old kid adjusting to playing with men in the second-best league in the world. He also missed a year due to COVID-related struggles. It’s going to take time for him to learn to play through the physicality seen at the AHL level, let alone in the NHL.
Turnovers In Space
As young players ascend, with each new step up the ladder comes an adjustment period. The game gets a little faster and the physicality becomes more intense. As this happens, windows to make plays get smaller, and close a heck of a lot faster, too. Quick decision-making on the ice often becomes the separator between young players thriving or struggling as they approach the NHL level. Rossi is certainly no exception to this.
It would be awfully unfair of me to judge the young Austrian for turnovers on bang-bang plays. However, to me, a slightly concerning trend in Rossi’s game are his turnovers in space. In other words, turnovers when he either had plenty of ice in front of him or plenty of time to make a decision with a defender closing in.
Rossi does a good job turning his head up the ice to assess his options before retrieving the puck in his own end with plenty of time to make a decision. Yet, he skates north without much of a plan. Instead, he opts to skate right into the oncoming checker and lightly push the puck in the neutral zone for a turnover.
The next two clips are also similar in that Rossi has plenty of time to make a decision at this level. However, he turns the puck over in the neutral zone both times, a mistake coaches absolutely loathe.
It’s not as though Rossi is turning the puck over every time. It’s clear that when Rossi makes the correct read, his high-level skill allows him to take over a game.
But consistency is what often separates a young prospect from being NHL-ready or not, and Rossi clearly thrives in the offensive zone, his decision-making as he leads the play up the ice could use more work.
Some corners of the fanbase have lamented Guerin for his decision to hold Rossi in Des Moines to ensure his contract slides. While Rossi scores at a point-per-game pace, he has been pressed at times as to why that isn’t a sign the young center is ready for the NHL spotlight. Guerin’s comments about making sure Rossi is scoring those points “the right way” have irked many. However, he may have a point here. Yes, Rossi can score goals at will. But it’s clear the Wild want him to develop a stronger game to be a more impactful center in the NHL.
Rossi’s time will come. His coach in Iowa, Tim Army, said as much during an interview with Zone Coverage following Rossi’s demotion in January. “He’s going to play there for a long time,” Army said. “He’s going to get another whack at it and be that much more prepared, and that time is going to come at some point where we hand him off there and we never see him again.”
Just not right now. His GM has made that clear – and he has a point.