Coming into 2023, Marco Rossi’s development was perhaps the biggest question of the season for the Minnesota Wild. Whether or not he would live up to the expectations of being the ninth overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft could make-or-break their year.
The Wild organization has been patient with the 22-year-old Austrian center, and for good reason. Complications with COVID-19 hampered his development, including a myocarditis diagnosis in 2021 that became life-threatening. Not only were there major concerns about his ability to play hockey at a high level afterward. More importantly, there were legitimate concerns for his life in the moment. He has recovered physically and has produced back-to-back seasons of at least 51 points in the AHL.
Going into this season, Rossi had only played in 21 NHL games. He only had one point, a primary assist on a Kirill Kaprizov goal, and a -8 plus-minus while only winning 39.6% of his faceoffs.
But it wasn’t just a lack of scoring that concerned the Wild. They wanted him to play more physically. Bill Guerin even went as far as to say he wanted to see some “f— you in [Rossi’s] game” on Michael Russo’s podcast “Straight From The Source” on his December 16th, 2022 appearance. Guerin would go on to add that “it’s not a league for the nicest guys,” and “you can be a great guy, but where there’s games to be won and 50-50 battles and things like that, you have to have some jam in your game.”
It may seem unfair to ask Rossi to be more physical, given that he was 5’9”, 180 lbs. when the Wild drafted him. However, Guerin was right. Rossi played without the edge players need to succeed at hockey’s highest level. Even the highest draft picks must showcase some form of willingness to get dirty, which would lead to scoring opportunities.
So, what did Rossi do to address these concerns?
He hit the gym. Rossi added 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason to have a more solid center of gravity, make his body more of a weapon, and make it tougher for opponents to separate him from the puck. That would lead to him notching a third-best mark in team camp strength tests.
Additionally, Rossi tweaked his skating stride to make it harder for opposing defenders to knock him off-balance. All the while, he was sacrificing time with his family. He spent most of the offseason in Minnesota and skipped his sister’s wedding in Austria.
The Wild have only played two games this year, but Rossi has meaningfully improved to begin the 2023 season. He still possesses his quick twitch and explosive acceleration to complement the strength he added. Rossi enters the season in peak shape and has shown a better ability to grind, even mixing it up a bit after puck stoppages.
His heightened aggressiveness led to his first career goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. Rossi stuck around the net after several battles and eventually sent it home.
His new approach also led to what would’ve been his first career goal on Thursday night in the season opener against the Florida Panthers.
However, an offsides on Minnesota’s zone entry negated his goal. That will only translate to more scoring opportunities as the season rolls on and add another legitimate line to the Wild, who already have a solid top-six. That’s a good thing, considering Matt Boldy’s upper-body injury. Minnesota will be looking for supplemental scoring after losing the second-line winger, meaning someone must step up.
Obviously, the first goal doesn’t count, and a goal-per-game average is unrealistic. However, Rossi has already shown more scoring ability this year than last season. He’s often in the correct position to make a play on the net and is much harder to remove from there.
It’s a small sample size. But Rossi has sacrificed a lot to deliver on his promise as a top-10 pick three years ago. He’s playing much better hockey than he has played before in the NHL. Rossi has rejuvenated the idea that he can become the top-6 forward we’ve been dreaming of for years.
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