Every card has been stacked against Marco Rossi making the Minnesota Wild out of training camp. Yes, he got a clean bill of health from his life-threatening bout with myocarditis in late spring, enabling him to start skating in June, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to determining whether he’s truly NHL-ready.
Even with the benefit of starting skating in June, Rossi had just three short months to prepare for training camp. That came after four months of being completely unable to do any sort of training, meaning he had to make up for that lost time before he could truly get himself in peak shape.
That’s a lot for a seasoned pro to come back from. Expecting a prospect who has only played five games since March 2020 to start on Day 1 is ludicrous. Making the team out of camp would basically be transporting Rossi straight from the QMJHL to the NHL, with an 18-month holdover in between.
No, the reasonable expectation for Rossi, 19, would be to start him in the AHL. Give him two or three months to get up to the speed of the pro game, then re-evaluate around Christmas. Or at least that was the reasonable expectation until we saw Rossi in game action last weekend. He’s back with a vengeance now, determined to make all reasonable observers look like chumps.
Rossi is skating with the Austrian national team this weekend as they attempt to qualify for the 2022 Olympics. Part of this is for national pride, as Rossi hopes to earn Austria some respect on the international stage. This is also a practical choice, as Rossi hasn’t played any games since the World Juniors in January. It’s not a ton of playing time, but hey, getting practices and games in can only help him get ready.
His play in a pair of friendly matches was a statement to the Wild — he’s gonna seize an NHL slot. In his first game back, he notched an assist in a win over Hungary. But it was Sunday’s game versus Italy where he grabbed the hockey world’s attention.
He scored a power-play goal and converted a penalty shot with a move that would make Peter Forsberg blush. Sure, Hungary and Italy aren’t exactly hockey powerhouses, so it might be wise not to get too carried away. Considering the circumstances, though, forget caution. Get excited. That Rossi could step into game action after all he endured and immediately look like one of the best players on the ice is incredible and bodes well for this season.
He has to keep proving it, of course. This weekend, a strong showing will build more momentum, and he needs to perform in camp and the pre-season. Still, the biggest question when it came to Rossi’s odds of making the team was his health and readiness. Since that question appears settled, who can stop him now?
Nobody. This summer, the Wild didn’t bring in any sort of top-six center, not even as a placeholder for Rossi. That left Joel Eriksson Ek, Victor Rask, Ryan Hartman, Frederick Gaudreau, and Nick Bjugstad as his NHL competition. A healthy Rossi should easily be able to force his way into the higher reaches of that depth chart. If someone has to move to the wing or press box, so be it.
It doesn’t seem likely that any of his fellow minor leaguers will wrest that spot from him, either. Theoretically, Rossi could claim a role at center while allowing another rookie to make the team at wing. So say, a strong camp from Matt Boldy or Adam Beckman shouldn’t knock Rossi down the depth chart into Iowa.
Especially since Minnesota’s lack of depth at center extends past the NHL level. Kyle Rau is the most senior of AHL veteran centers, yet he only drew in for 14 games last season. Mason Shaw is a dark horse candidate to make the roster but seems much more destined for a bottom-six role, where Minnesota’s more than covered at. That leaves Alexander Khovanov as Rossi’s biggest competition, but after a year where he couldn’t crack a KHL lineup, is he going to be NHL-ready?
The only person who can stop Rossi at this point is general manager Bill Guerin, who was extremely conservative with prospects last year, almost inexplicably so in Boldy’s case. Despite going straight from college to tearing up the AHL to the tune of 18 points in 14 games, Boldy never got a shot at the NHL. Not even in the playoffs, when there were no salary cap implications and his team scored 12 goals in seven games.
Will Guerin pump the brakes when it comes to Rossi’s comeback? It’s hard to think so at this point. It’s been a common refrain at 10K Rinks this summer, but it’s true: Minnesota needs youngsters to step up. Without another top-six center to pair with Eriksson Ek, they need Rossi to play soon or risk another season with lackluster centers for his star players.
Furthermore, Guerin’s a GM who repeatedly emphasizes prospects earning their roster spots, and it’s impossible to say Rossi hasn’t put in the work. This is a kid who put in 600-plus hours of hyper-specialized strength training leading up to the draft. He went from not skating for half a year to standing out in international games in less than three months. Talent aside, he’s proved he deserves a spot. He just happens to be a gifted player, too.
On Monday, Rossi tweeted out, “Feels good to be back #betterthanbefore”. Who can argue with him? And with what he was before — a star prospect whose career trajectory resembles that of Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros, and Jack Eichel — that’s a scary thought for every team that isn’t Minnesota. The way things are tracking with his incredible comeback, Rossi should be putting that fear into them before Halloween.