There’s a lot of science to the NHL Draft, but a lot of it comes down to luck. The Hockey Gods might shine on you and deliver the ping pong balls to draft a can’t-miss star. Perhaps your third-round pick develops in a way you didn’t anticipate and becomes the next Brayden Point. Maybe you’re in just the right draft slot to scoop up a great player who never should’ve fallen to you.
That luck doesn’t often bounce the Minnesota Wild’s way. Sure, they got Kirill Kaprizov with a fifth-rounder in 2015 — though he’s yet to play a game in St. Paul — but too often it’s eluded them, especially when it comes to their biggest need: A top-line center.
It looked like they’d gotten that with the ninth overall pick in 2010, but Mikael Granlund fell short of his ceiling. The year after, they held the 10th overall pick, but top centers Mika Zibanejad, Sean Couturier and Mark Scheifele went sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively. In 2012, Minnesota held the seventh pick in a draft that had absolutely no center talent. They hadn’t picked in the top-10 since.
So the State of Hockey was absolutely shocked Tuesday night when the Wild drafted center Marco Rossi at No. 9. Rossi was the perfect marriage between filling Minnesota’s hole at center and elite skill. After a decade of bad luck and some blown picks, the Wild finally seem to have gotten lucky. How?
Catching All the Breaks
Minnesota was never supposed to have the ninth overall pick. At the beginning of the postseason, they were (most likely) slated to pick 12th overall. A win in Game 1 of the qualifying round threatened to take them down to 16 or lower.
After that, everything broke right for the Wild’s draft chances. While no one should be happy Minnesota would fall to Vancouver in the playoffs, there’s no doubt getting a higher pick served them better than their mediocre squad advancing another round in a weird postseason.
The Wild’s fortunes grew, as Montreal, Chicago and Arizona all pulled off upsets in the opening round. All three fell out of the lottery, vaulting Minnesota up three spots. Picks 9, 10 and 11 became Rossi, the supremely talented Cole Perfetti and generational goalie Yaroslav Askarov. Without that boost, the Wild would have once again been on the outside looking in on elite talent.
Rossi was never supposed to fall to ninth overall. Rossi had a historic draft year, putting up 120 points in 56 games for the Ottawa 67s. Here’s how his points per game ranked in the last decade among draft-eligible CHL players:
Of that group, Connor McDavid and Alexis Lafreniere went first in their drafts, Jonathan Drouin third and Mitch Marner fourth. Scouts didn’t doubt the production, either. SilverSevenSens compiled 50 draft rankings and the consensus had Rossi in the 4-7 range.
Part of Rossi’s fall can be explained by the unusually top-heavy draft class. His size may have also contributed. Despite players under six feet succeeding more and more, Rossi’s 5’9” frame scared off teams just enough to pass on him.
No matter, the Wild got lucky, didn’t overthink things and got their center.
200 Feet of Terror
Rossi talking about himself is a tune that may ring familiar to Wild fans. “My impact is going to be my whole game. I compete really hard, 200-foot game, play really good defense.”
It’s a weird flex for a kid who scores like Marner to start describing his game as if he’s Joel Eriksson Ek. But he’s not wrong. Future Considerations praises his multi-faceted defensive game, “[He] aggressively [attacks] his opponents as he gets physical and pins players to the boards, but can also finesse the puck from them with a smooth stick lift before transitioning the other way.”
If Rossi is able to translate that style to the NHL, he’s going to be a possession monster for Minnesota. All the more opportunities to showcase what he can do when he has the puck. Remember, a player can’t rack up 120 points without oozing with skill.
Between Rossi’s hands, lower-body strength and sheer force of will, he has a toolkit designed to dance around defenders and attack the high-danger areas all game long. He can either score in the home plate area or take advantage of the defensive breakdowns he creates to pass to a teammate for an easy goal.
Rossi’s shot is strong, as his 39 goals can attest to, but it’s his work as a playmaker that is gamebreaking. His strength enables him to hold onto the puck as long as it takes for him to find an opportunity out of seemingly nothing. Once he sees an opening, he can thread a pass through traffic and create a scoring chance.
If Rossi hits, then the Wild will have a unique blend of skill and two-way play, the likes of which they’ve never seen.
When Can He Deliver?
This isn’t to say that he has no weaknesses. His size means he’ll have questions about whether he can stick at center, as there are few 5’9” centers who have succeeded at such a high level. His lack of top-end speed is also a concern with some, in conjunction with his diminutive frame.
There’s reason to be optimistic, however. Rossi is built like a fire hydrant, and he’s only gotten stronger this year. He’s used the time off from the pandemic to put in 600 hours of training. The added strength should not only help him hold up to the physicality of the NHL game, but stronger legs help add speed and explosiveness.
It’ll be interesting to see if Rossi can follow in the footsteps of Daniel Briere and become a 5’9” Number One Center. According to Rossi, that experiment may start as early as this year, telling the media he’s ready to step into Minnesota’s lineup.
There’s an obvious opening if he proves himself in training camp. The Wild’s first-line center is currently a “Help Wanted” sign. Beyond that, the depth chart includes defensive center Eriksson Ek, Nick Bjugstad coming off a back injury and converted winger Marcus Johansson.
James Boyd, Rossi’s general manager in Ottawa, probably wouldn’t count him out. He told Scott Wheeler of The Athletic, “You hear [stories] about Sidney Crosby or Shea Weber when they were juniors, it’s almost like a disorder, the striving to get better. I see the same thing in Marco. Nothing’s going to stop him.”
The Wild got a talented center, and Rossi has an opportunity to claim an NHL role right away. There’s work ahead and questions to answer, but for now, marvel at how the stars aligned for everyone involved.