Despite Bill Guerin telling anyone who’d listen that he liked his team, the Minnesota Wild were active at the deadline. They made a flurry of moves to shore up nearly every weakness observers clamored for him to fix.
He added size in Nicolas Deslauriers and Jacob Middleton, with the latter also deepening the blue line. For the struggling penalty kill, Guerin acquired Tyson Jost, who has upside for next year. And to cap it all off, he snagged Marc-Andre Fleury to add a Hall of Fame talent to the suddenly-scorching Cam Talbot.
A quick look at these moves and it checks out: The Wild are all-in. They’ve addressed every issue facing them in the lead-up to the postseason.
Well, except one. If you thought Minnesota had a hole at center coming into the deadline, Guerin certainly did little to address it. In fairness to him, the center market didn’t shake out like many hoped. Claude Giroux punched his own ticket to Florida. Big names like Joe Pavelski, J.T. Miller, and Tomas Hertl stayed put.
Fortunately, the Wild’s window to upgrade down the middle didn’t expire with the deadline. They can make one last addition to maximize their shot at a Stanley Cup. All they have to do is recall Marco Rossi.
The Wild have resisted this proposition all year, minus two games in January where they were missing a third of their roster. There are powerful incentives not to call him up, namely, timing the expiration of his entry-level contract to $13 million of dead cap hit expiring in Summer 2025. A Stanley Cup ring and a clean banner to raise in the Xcel Energy Center should be more powerful, though. And if they truly want to go all-in, recalling Rossi is the move to make.
Rossi is Ready for the wild
One idea used to justify keeping Rossi with the AHL’s Iowa Wild is that he isn’t quite ready. He’s 20 years old, playing in his first pro season in North America, and thus needs a full year of seasoning before advancing. Especially after missing 2020 with myocarditis.
It takes only a quick glance at what he’s doing in Des Moines to dispel those notions.
Rossi is having one of the best seasons for an AHL player his age this century. He’s scored 44 points in 50 games, which puts his per-game production in his Draft+1 season on par with Patrice Bergeron and Sean Couturier. Both those centers are the kind of two-way forces Rossi projects to be.
Guerin’s known about Rossi’s offensive production all season, though, and downplayed his numbers when The Athletic’s Michael Russo confronted him on KFAN this December. “That’s a nice stat to have, but it’s also expected. A point a game’s great, but how are you doing it? We expect our guys to play a certain way, and to contribute in a certain fashion.”
This seems to imply that Rossi is lacking in his two-way play. It’s difficult to verify how a player controls play in the AHL, given that advanced stats aren’t publicly available. Thanks to Jacob Stoller and InStat, which does privately track such things, we can determine that Guerin’s implication is misleading.
Not only is Rossi producing and generating chances at a high level in the AHL, but he’s also dominating play. His ability to control shot quality is better than 72% of the league, and he dictates shot attempt share is better than 85%. Combine his offensive and defensive contributions, and you have a player who is better than all but 4% of the entire AHL. Whatever nits you can pick in his game, there’s no denying his effectiveness.
Except, many still do. During his two-game stint in the NHL, it was Matt Boldy who featured on the highlight reels with two points. Rossi came away with zero, and the easy comparison between the rookies made it look like Boldy was ready, and Rossi wasn’t.
Take away Boldy’s performance from the equation, though, and you’ll find a player who got several chances despite playing in a depleted lineup. It wouldn’t have taken much going differently for him to have collected a couple of points himself. For instance, he’d have gotten on the score-sheet in Boston had Mats Zuccarello finished this point-blank chance.
There’s an insane amount of both offensive and defensive awareness on display in these four seconds. Not only was he savvy enough to catch Charlie Coyle napping, but he instantly turned and threaded a tape-to-tape pass between two Boston Bruins.
His situational awareness shined through at the end of the first period. With five seconds left, there are not many good options for Rossi on the zone entry. He’s in a bad shooting position, and a pass to Hartman can be easily broken up by the defenseman. He immediately makes the best decision, though.
He fires a soft shot that ricochets off Jeremy Swayman, and then almost bounces off Hartman into the net. Had it gone in, there would’ve been enough time on the clock for it to count. Again, this decision is made in the span of five seconds.
Rossi’s got hands, speed, and a good shot, but hockey sense is the foundation of his offense. Here against Washington, you can see him utilizing his feel for the game to create a scoring chance. As Washington scrambles to cover Marcus Foligno‘s (top right) passing options, Rossi is able to slip free of his man and get to the goalmouth, completely uncovered.
Yes, Foligno sends an amazing back-handed pass, but Rossi is waiting for it, a nice bit of chemistry for this being only his second game with Foligno. Anticipating the difficult pass allows him to get his shot off before the defender behind the net can block the shot. It doesn’t go in, but that’s a high-danger chance.
Beyond his offense, what stands out when you watch all of Rossi’s NHL shifts is how feisty he is. He has a Kirill Kaprizov-like motor and shares the superstar’s fearlessness to get physical. In these two games, he was forechecking, backchecking, and jockeying into position in front of both nets. On one occasion, he breaks up a potential deflection chance from Garnet Hathaway, then continues to battle the much bigger center in the crease.
Rossi’s a small player at 5’9″, but much like Kaprizov, he can hold his own. If anything, you maybe want him to dial down the chippiness just a little bit, as he took two penalties (while drawing one) in his two games. But it’s easier to teach a player to color inside the lines than it is to teach them to get to the dirty areas of the ice. Rossi’s willingness to battle and ability to hold his own against NHLers shows that he’s ready for the big leagues. And more importantly…
The Wild Are Ready For Rossi
Others arguing against Rossi being on the roster will point out that, hey, their center group is doing just fine. Minnesota’s rolling again, racking up six straight wins, and their top three line combinations are performing solidly. Where can Rossi even be an upgrade?
It’s definitely true that the Wild’s center situation is solid enough for the regular season. Ryan Hartman is having a strong season and is a near-lock to score 30 goals. Joel Eriksson Ek has nearly 20 himself on an elite shutdown line. Freddy Gaudreau established a spot in the lineup between Kevin Fiala and Boldy.
But all due respect to this group, this isn’t much different than Minnesota’s centers from last year. They couldn’t score on their own once the Vegas Golden Knights game-planned to take wingers Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, and Fiala out of the game.
The only difference, essentially, is swapping in Gaudreau for Victor Rask. Gaudreau’s speed makes him a better transition option, but he’s missing Rask’s raw skill. Does that upgrade make a difference come playoff time?
It’s hard to say, but the important question is: Should the Wild be willing to bet their Cup dreams on it?
They don’t have to with Rossi. As for where he’d make the most sense as an upgrade, it’s in Gaudreau’s spot.
Gaudreau’s offense has been on the rise since he started playing with Fiala and Boldy. Even so, he still rates firmly in the bottom-fifth of the NHL offensively. Rossi’s two-way game and skill should be able to surpass Gaudreau’s overall value, especially in a plum spot between Fiala and Boldy. The upgrade from Gaudreau to Rossi on the second power-play unit should be significant, as well.
This isn’t to pick on Gaudreau, a fine defensive player who can move the puck and whom his coach calls “the ultimate teammate.” You can get to a Cup Final with a Gaudreau in your lineup, as the Nashville Predators showed in 2017. But his coaches used him as a fourth-liner, not in a starring role between two top-tier scorers.
It might seem unfair to bump Gaudreau from that spot, and maybe it is. But plenty of players were bumped after the deadline last week. As Evason said after the Vegas game. “Now we have decisions. That’s wonderful, right? The one thing [we emphasize] is how welcoming our group is regardless of whether you play top minutes or you don’t play top minutes. You put on a Wild jersey and you’re going to play hard for your teammates.”
This stretch run is all about maximizing Minnesota’s ceiling for the playoffs. Rossi’s presence and skill down the middle raises that significantly over the group they had last season.
The Money Can Work
Though, if this were about Rossi’s readiness and finding a spot in the lineup, he’d no doubt be up already. The decision to keep Rossi in Iowa is influenced heavily, if not dictated entirely, by money.
If Rossi plays in 10 or more games this season, he’ll need a raise in summer 2024. Keeping him in the AHL for the season pushes that back a season when a bunch of dead money comes off Minnesota’s books. The Wild project to have $34.7 million in cap space in 2024-25, but only six players under contract. That’s 17 roster spots, and expiring contracts between now and then include Fiala, Boldy, Zuccarello, Hartman, and Foligno.
How can that even work?
The first thing that needs to be said is: There’s a difference between “difficult” and “impossible.” Paying Rossi in 2024-25 makes things tighter for the Wild, yes, but it’s not impossible. Here’s how a potential 2024-25 roster shakes out:
Zuccarello and Foligno are listed as being re-signed at their current prices mostly as placeholders. You can swap them in for No. 1 RW or No. 3 LW you like at that price point. But with this layout, you can squeeze in Rossi at a $4.5M-$5M price point on a one-year deal. If the flat cap goes up three years later, that’s even more breathing room.
How do you get Rossi (or Boldy, who we budgeted as $5.5M) at that price point? The Wild have to work with the players to take slightly less on short-term deals, with the promise that more money is there once the dead money goes away. They wouldn’t be the first young star players to accommodate a tight cap situation, only to become very rich shortly after.
Does this roster rely on getting a lot of value out of aging players like Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin? It sure does. Does it require young players to deliver big impacts despite being first, second, and third-year players? Absolutely. But was the plan going to be different, even with an extra $4 million to play with? Nope.
It’s going to be tough, but it always was going to be tough, and sliding Rossi’s ELC is no cure-all for the pending cap crunch. At least this way, the Wild are more likely to have a deep playoff run under their belts before executing their risky plans.
“This Is About F***ing Winning”
You can read everything above and get a great argument for bringing up Rossi. But perhaps the most compelling argument could be used by Guerin’s own words in this now-famous training camp exchange with Spurgeon.
For those who don’t know, Guerin asked his captain what they’re doing is about. Spurgeon responded “Hard work and havin’ fun.” Guerin replied, “F*** that. This is about f***ing winning.”
“Saving cap space for 2024,” was notably absent from the conversation.
If anything, winning this year might even more important than thought in the pre-season. Because here’s the honest truth: 2021-22 might be the last year Minnesota can reasonably expect to compete for a Cup until that buyout burden lessens. Even with a great prospect pipeline, the Wild’s margin for error is very thin. Guerin could make perfect use of the salary cap, and all it takes is one key injury or poor performance leaving them in an impossible-to-fix situation.
What would you rather put a bet on now? This group, which we know can be a contender, or the hope that in three years, a spare $4 million can make a big difference? It sure seems like striking while they can still put Rossi in a loaded top-six with the (almost certainly) outgoing Fiala is the best play here.
Failing to use Rossi to boost Minnesota’s Cup chances will be like making a drop-pass on a breakaway. Sure, if you pull it off and it works out, you look like a genius. But really, a drop-pass is an unnecessary risk, compared to the golden opportunity before you.
Being patient with someone like Rossi might look like a refreshing change from previous regimes at the moment. Will it still appear that way after the glaring but fixable center issues lead to a first-round exit? Or are fans going to look back and wish Guerin just went truly all-in and took a swing at the Stanley Cup?