DES MOINES, IOWA – Fans in Section 120, Row 10, left Wells Fargo Arena after the Iowa Wild’s win over the Manitoba Moose on Sunday with an exclusive gift: a bottle of hot sauce from Brown Dogs Farm. Those fans received that sizzling Iowa-made hot sauce because the Minnesota Wild’s top center prospect, Marco Rossi, found the back of the net.
Rossi scored twice and missed an empty net attempt for the hat trick by a matter of inches. Rossi’s first goal came from a quick release from the left circle on the power play, which beat Manitoba goaltender Arvid Holm’s high glove. That goal broke open the scoring for Iowa, who was down 2-0 in the second period.
Then later in the second period, Rossi and Mikey Milne teamed up on the forecheck to cause a turnover, and the Wild’s 2020 first-round draft pick scored from the low slot for the go-ahead goal.
That second goal is another example of Rossi’s increased presence and activity around the net. Ask Iowa Wild coach Tim Army about that, and he’ll tell you his willingness to crash the net is improved and will lead to even more goals. Army was also quick to note that Rossi scored against the Milwaukee Admirals two games ago from the doorstep.
“I try to use that confidence and just to be better every game,” Rossi said of his scoring.
The red-hot 21-year-old has three goals and eight points in his past four games. Since the Wild sent Rossi down to AHL Iowa, Rossi has recorded 13 goals and 40 points in 41 games. “He’s been outstanding,” Army said. That’s a 23-goal, 70-point pace over a full 72-game AHL season. Rossi’s 0.98 point-per-game rate leads Iowa and is tied for 19th among active AHLers (minimum 20 games) this season.
“He’s come down to Iowa and done everything we’ve asked,” Iowa Wild general manager and Minnesota Wild director of hockey operations, Mike Murray, said in an exclusive interview with 10KRinks. “He’s done just what we’ve wanted to see from an on-ice perspective.”
That’s despite Rossi scoring only two goals during a 17-game span between January 26 and his March 7 marker against the Milwaukee Admirals that ended a seven-game goal drought. Rossi attributed his three goals in the past four games due to “luck maybe” because the goals are finally coming, even though he generated quality chances before.
“We’re trying to encourage him to shoot a little bit more,” Army said, “which he’s very conscious of, and he’s trying to – but he’s still a playmaker.”
Rossi understands the message. He had a season-high eight shots on Sunday, nearly all high-quality chances. While there’s still room for growth in the shot department, his 2.71 shot rate on a per-game basis in the past 21 games is up from 2.2 in his first 20 games. He’s taken it to another level over the past seven games with a rate of 3.57.
“Before I was kind of trying to find another pass,” Rossi said, “so now when I see the net and I know ‘Okay, there is nothing open or anything,’ I have to rip it.”
That’s why his goal totals don’t do his play justice. His play-driving and quality-chance generation aren’t often illustrated in the boxscore. However, he has 16 assists in 24 games since January 20, which includes a pair on Saturday. He executed a shot-pass at the net from the left circle that connected with Steven Fogarty for a goal. Later in the game, he made an easy-looking cross-ice feed which set up another power-play goal.
Army said Rossi has also shown significant improvement in commanding the puck. He also has that “F— you attitude” Wild GM Bill Guerin communicated that he wanted to see more of in Rossi’s game in a December interview. Take for instance how Rossi will come back to the bench and look at Army because he wants to get back on the ice.
“I like that,” Army said, “For me, that’s a little ‘eff you’ attitude.”
Whether it’s winning possession of the puck in board battles, clearing a puck from the defensive zone, getting in scrums, or pushing back against Greg Meireles after getting hit in the face on Saturday, they’re seeing that attitude and physical presence in his game.
“Right when I came down here, the most important thing for me was to demand the puck way more,” Rossi said. “You’re more in the game, and so there are a lot of chances you can create out of it.
Army said Rossi has shown more emotion this year, too, after scoring goals and other great plays. He’s greatly improved at finding separation in the offensive zone, which is also a crucial part of him finding more space and time, Army said.
“The most important thing is to have poise with the puck,” Rossi said. “As long as you have that, you have more time.”
Army added how smart and disciplined Rossi is away from the puck.
“There’s been a really good evolution to his game,” Army said.
Army knows what an evolving young center looks like. He saw his fair share when he was an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche from 2012 to 2017. So while many people draw comparisons between Ryan O’Reilly and Rossi, Army had a different Avs player in mind: Paul Stastny.
Army said O’Reilly is bigger, and his play style is more 1-on-1 whereas Stastny’s isn’t. He’s also a player who does all of the small things right, and one that a coach can depended on regardless of the situation. While Stastny isn’t someone who might grab your attention, Army said, he’s always where he needs to be. Army raves about how Stastny does it all: plays strong defense, kills penalties, wins faceoffs, forechecks and can score with his “sneaky good” shot. Just like Rossi.
At 37, it’s easy to forget how great Stastny has been. He has 820 points and 1,136 games of experience, which includes scoring 70 points three times in his first four seasons. Wild fans might remember how he dominated the first round of the playoffs in 2014. Stastny torched Minnesota for five goals and 10 points in seven games.
Army sees Rossi in Stastny.
“His subtlety is genius,” Army said of Rossi, “and that’s what makes him such a good player.”
Rossi has only gotten better in these last four months as he’s evolved in Iowa. Army said he’s stronger than ever, plays an average of 22-26 minutes a night, and can be utilized in all situations.
“He’s in a sense kind of from a different generation as a center,” Army said of Rossi.
Even though he’s thriving in Iowa, the focus remains on his development.
“There’s no rush,“ Army said. “He’s just 21, [and] he understands why he’s here.”
If you need evidence of him embracing Iowa, look no further than his leadership role. With an “A” on his jersey, Army said he’s been an “outstanding” leader representing the younger core. It’s a reflection of how committed he is in Iowa, Army said. Rossi added that his experience from last season helps him lead.
“It means a lot,” Rossi said, “especially to be a leader in this team here. Maybe I’m not the guy who talks the most, but I can see a lot and can talk especially to younger guys a lot. I think they feel more comfortable talking to me about some things than maybe to the older guys.”
Fellow high-profile Wild prospect Jesper Wallstedt said Rossi is always on the ice practicing before everyone else. They all know the kind of player he is and the talent he has.
“I feel like he’s developed his game even further,” Wallstedt said. “I think he’s going from more than just a point scorer to more of a complete hockey player.”
In December, Rossi told 10KRinks that he was “overthinking.” Now, he said he’s focused on the variables he has control over.
“You have to trust the process,” Rossi said. “It’s the most important thing, because if you start to overthink and stuff, then you will feel it in your game [once] it doesn’t go your way.”
What does it actually feel like playing when you’re overthinking? “You have a lot of ghosts in your head,” Rossi says, “because you’re not thinking at the right spots. So for me it was important when I’m down here to think about here and not anything else because otherwise you just get like crazy about it.”
It’s unknown whether he will get a shot with the Wild again this year. But while his mind is in Iowa, Rossi is prepared to take on the NHL again if called upon. “Yeah, I’m ready,” Rossi said, “especially [since] my confidence right now is really good.” The way he’s playing shows that his mentality is exactly where it needs to be to thrive once he gets a second chance in Minnesota.
All Data Via AHL.com.