Whether the Minnesota Wild wanted to admit it, Marco Rossi would always be the key to Life Without Kevin Fiala. For a large stretch in October, it seemed the transition between the two would go smoothly. Rossi led the NHL in preseason points, showing he had the talent to stick in the NHL this season.
That talent is still there. You don’t get to be the 9th overall pick, then put up 50 points in the AHL after missing a year-plus of hockey without it. But fans hoping for a Matt Boldy-like smooth transition to the NHL aren’t seeing that through the rookie’s first 15 games.
The money stat here is one point, a lone assist, in those 15 games. We should be careful not to overreact to this. 15 games from a 21-year-old in their first real taste of NHL action isn’t going to make or break his career. Still, is that number ugly? Can’t deny it.
In fairness, there’s a bit of tough luck involved here. The Wild are shooting just 4.6% with Rossi on the ice at 5-on-5. That’s 273rd among 283 forwards with 150-plus minutes. If that was at a more normal rate, he’d probably have a few more points in his pocket.
Even with, say, five points, though, the overall picture might not change much. The thing about Rossi is that while he’s always been a point producer, he’s also always been more than that. Rossi’s brain, strength, and low center of gravity allowed him to win puck battles and turn the tide of possession toward his team. This was the case both at Canadian Juniors and the professional American League.
That’s not happening now, either.
That isn’t terrible, as it’s pretty encouraging to see young players holding their own in the defensive zone. The problem is that it’s not translating into offense. It’s far from fair to put this burden on a rookie, maybe, but the Wild are sitting at 29th in the NHL in 5-on-5 scoring. If Minnesota’s going to have any juice offensively, they need to unlock Rossi’s talent.
But how? It sure seems like Dean Evason and the Wild are at a loss to find a place in the lineup for Rossi. He started on the fourth line to start the season. Then he got a bit of run with Boldy and Freddy Gaudreau. When that didn’t work, they switched him to playing with Connor Dewar and Mason Shaw. The offense didn’t come, so Rossi bounced back to Boldy’s line alongside Marcus Foligno earlier this week.
Now, Rossi’s not the only one to bounce up and down the lineup. Injuries forced Evason to dust off the line blender he seldom touched last season. But is this best for Rossi’s development? To bounce around into different roles like this? Compare that to Boldy last season, where he got placed in a clearly defined role on a stable line.
Since Rossi got healthy scratched in the third game of the season, he’s played 13:29 minutes per night. It’s certainly better than the four minutes he got against the Los Angeles Kings before that healthy scratch, but still, it’s not the Top-6 role he’s used to.
Maybe there’s merit in letting him struggle his way out of this, along with the rest of the team. On the other hand, 15 games of this hasn’t seemed to do the trick. What can Minnesota do to shake things up and get Rossi back on track?
There are probably two real options, at least among what Evason’s yet to try. The first is to up Rossi’s responsibility and put him in a prime spot to get scoring. That probably means placing him on the first line with Kirill Kaprizov and Zuccarello, but not necessarily.
If Minnesota breaks up that duo for a bit, playing with either highly-skilled player might do the trick. Maybe that means putting Rossi in between Kaprizov and Boldy to get the latter on track as well. Perhaps Rossi could team up with fellow Short Kings Zuccarello and Shaw.
This would also have to come with extended power play time. If you want to get a scorer’s confidence up, give them a chance to score. Rossi hasn’t had much power play opportunity this season, with just 18 minutes in 15 games. The talent disparity between the first and second units justifies this lack of minutes, but still, it’s probably not ideal for Rossi, personally.
The problem here is if Evason trusts Rossi enough to elevate his responsibility level. It doesn’t look like it, at least on the surface level. Evason seems very happy with Gaudreau between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. The line doesn’t score much but is low-event, which is the kind of security blanket a coach will grab after a 20-goal-in-three-game season-opening nightmare. It’s the one unit Evason’s line blender is sparing as of late.
As for power play time, we already have Evason’s answer for whether or not Rossi’s in line to get more of that. That would be a no. Boldy is off the top unit as of Wednesday morning, and Gaudreau, not Rossi, is taking his place.
If that’s off the table, the options shrink. There’s the status quo, where Rossi doesn’t get much ice time, power play opportunities, or stability. Or he can go to the AHL again.
As much as that might feel like a step back, Minnesota has to put Rossi in a position to succeed. If that place isn’t the Wild’s Bottom-6, is it in the Iowa Wild’s Top-6? He had that success there last season, with 14 goals and 38 points in 35 games before losing steam in the second half.
Rossi hasn’t taken games over. Two or three weeks in Iowa can get him doing that. His 35-game start last season saw him shoot the puck almost three times per game. Now? He’s got 11 shots in 15 games. That’s not going to cut it, and something probably has to change for Rossi to find the player he was in Iowa last year and the preseason this year.
Maybe Evason just can’t stomach giving Rossi the kind of role he’s used to in Iowa. That’s understandable, given his team is under .500, just lost their starting goalie, and needs to fight to stay within the playoff bubble. It’s fair to look at what Rossi’s done in 15 games and say that he hasn’t earned that type of role.
But if Rossi’s unable to handle, feel, and shoot the puck like he’s accustomed to, he might as well get that opportunity to build his confidence under Tim Army in Des Moines. Fair or not, the Wild’s self-proclaimed lack of talent means unlocking Rossi’s skills, by any means necessary, should be priority No. 1 in the State of Hockey.