Marco Rossi looked like he had a direct path to the NHL when the Minnesota Wild drafted him in 2020. Bill Guerin said that he was the player they were targeting all along. “They need a center,” Rossi acknowledged after the draft. “I’m a center. I’m 100 percent ready.” Rossi wasn’t wrong, but we should have known he’d have to take the long road.
His father, Michael, drove him three hours from Austria to Zurich, Switzerland. Marco would wake up at 6 a.m. for school, commute to practice afterward, and arrive home by midnight. The 5’9” center became a gym rat, preparing his body for the rigors of hockey at the highest level. Rossi turned himself into a first-round pick but things took a turn when he arrived at training camp and was mysteriously shut down.
A year later, he was at camp once again, making a comeback after suffering from myocarditis, a potentially life-threatening heart condition that disrupted his life and hockey development. Last year, he played in 19 early-season games but only registered one assist. Rossi had 51 points in 53 AHL games, but the Wild didn’t recall him for an extended look late in the season.
In December, The Athletic’s Michael Russo asked Guerin what he wanted to see from Rossi on his podcast. “Some jam, some excitement,” Guerin responded. “Some ‘f— you’ in your game.” Those words resonate whenever anyone mentions Guerin and Rossi in the same sentence. That’s unfortunate, given the effort Rossi has put in to be an impactful NHL player. It’s not just Rossi, though. Guerin seems to be trying to build a roster full of players in his image.
Guerin was a special player, and he may be falling into a common coaching pitfall – only as an executive. Wayne Gretzky had 894 goals and 2857 points in his 20-year career. He won four Stanley Cups as part of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty and brought attention to hockey in the Sun Belt when he joined the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. However, he went 143-161-24 in four years as the Phoenix Coyotes head coach. From 2005 to 2009, the Coyotes finished with 83 points or fewer and never higher than fourth in their division.
The best players often don’t make great coaches because they can’t understand why their subjects don’t play at the level they did. Conversely, players like Bruce Boudreau, who carved out a career on the fringes of their roster, usually know how to maximize the talent on their roster. Coaches and executives have different roles, and Steve Yzerman, for example, was a great player and has done masterful work in the front office, at least with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But Guerin seems to be leaning on a football coaching trope to build his roster.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started 0-6 in 2013, and then-head coach Greg Schiano believed they were losing because there were not enough “Schiano Men” on Tampa’s roster. As one intrepid writer pointed out, replacing Tampa’s 2013 roster with 44 Greg Schainos on Madden hardly did the team any good. In real life, Schiano burned his players out, the team went 4-12, and the Bucs fired him at the end of the season. Schiano’s dominating style worked in college, where he lorded over players for 15 years at Rutgers. But it didn’t work in the pros.
Guerin had an outstanding career. The New Jersey Devils selected him fifth overall in 1989. He played five games at age 21 and scored 14 goals as a rookie the following year. Guerin scored 25 goals at age 23 but started to shine in his prime years – 29 goals at age 26, 30 at age 28. He also improved as he got older: 40 goals at age 30, 41 at age 31, 34 at age 33, and 36 at age 36. Guerin had a productive season at age 38 before deciding to retire.
It wasn’t just scoring, though. Guerin was sound defensively, earning Selke votes three times, and was a hard-nosed player. He had over 100 penalties in minutes nine times in his career. Replace every Wild player on the NHL video game with prime Bill Guerin, and the team will be more productive than a Madden roster full of Schiano Men. Still, you’d have an aging roster full of gritty forwards, porous defense, and suspect goaltending.
People almost universally beloved Guerin as a player, and most fans and media in Minnesota have embraced his personality as an executive. Many refer to him as “Billy.” In Guerin, they trust. Guerin is operating with a lot of power; Minnesota extended and promoted him last year. He’s the team's voice because the star player speaks Russian, and Dean Evason isn’t as gregarious as Boudreau. The Wild are Guerin’s team as much as it is anybody else’s.
Last year, Guerin traded Cam Talbot in a fit of pique, and they landed Filip Gustavsson. The Wild could have gotten more for Kevin Fiala, but they hit on Brock Faber in return, so that trade worked out. Still, Gustavsson probably will get fewer starts than he should because it’s hard to keep a declining Hall of Famer like Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench. And Faber alone can’t save an aging defensive corps.
Gustavsson won’t be the last young Wild player to cede playing time to a veteran. This year, the Wild extended Ryan Hartman, Marcus Foligno, and Mats Zuccarello. Zuccarello’s looks team-friendly; Foligno’s doesn’t. Hartman is a valuable glue guy, but he’s not a true No. 1 center. Still, he spends most nights playing between Kirill Kaprizov and Zuccarello while Rossi patrols the third line.
There’s a fine line between making players earn playing time and creating a structure that prioritizes a low floor over a championship ceiling. Rossi sacrificed a lot this summer and looks like a better player. But it may be a while before the Wild trust him with a top-line role. They’re trying to win with minimal cap space, and they’ve used much of that precious room on older players. Guerin seems to value the certainty of veteran players over the upside of younger ones. Rossi still faces a long road to a significant role, and he may not be the last young star to do so in Minnesota.
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