On Sunday, 10K Rinks published a story on why the Minnesota Wild shouldn’t pursue center Bo Horvat. You can read the full explanation here, but a main pillar of the argument was: Why get Horvat when you have a young, point-per-game center you can plug into the lineup for free?
That center is Marco Rossi, of course. Rossi struggled offensively early this season, registering only one assist and no goals in 16 games. Yes, his defense was solid. But the lack of production just didn’t cut it, and the Wild sent him to Iowa for a confidence-boosting stint.
Since then, two things have happened. The first is that Rossi has gained that confidence back. Rossi now has seven goals and 20 points in 20 AHL games, hitting the point-per-game mark on the nose. Just as, mind you, Matt Boldy did when he went to the AHL last year and put up 10 points in 10 games before Minnesota recalled him in January. Hmmm…
The second is the Wild got back into, and are starting to back out of, a playoff spot. Their secondary scoring, a concern all season, is wilting as the playoff race tightens. Over the past seven games, the Wild are averaging 2.57 goals per game. Take out the ones Kaprizov has a hand in, and that’s down to 1.42.
Do the math. The Wild need more scoring, to the point where they’re pegged as a team who might be staking out a Horvat-type player. They’re struggling offensively, with even the top line of Kirill Kaprizov, Sam Steel, and Mats Zuccarello slowing down. They need a spark after a 3-3-2 stretch.
And they have their 2020 first-round, stud rookie prospect hanging out in Des Moines, racking up points.
It feels like such a straight line from Point A to Point B. Still, Rossi and the Wild are still on opposite sides of the straight line from Des Moines to St. Paul.
At this point, what’s the excuse?
On January 14, The Athletic’s Joe Smith quoted Bill Guerin on the matter. Guerin recalled Sammy Walker and Adam Beckman as injury fill-ins, leaving Rossi in Des Moines. “Right now, we just don’t have room and there’s no sense bringing Marco up right now for just a hot dog in the stands,” Guerin said. “It’s better off he just plays. But he’s doing well.”
Since then, they’re 2-2, with the two wins coming in dreadful showings against the Arizona Coyotes and Washington Capitals. They’re 25th in the NHL at a 5-on-5 scoring rate and 20th in all situations. Every night matters, every missed opportunity for a point matters, and every extra goal counts.
Is there really no room in this lineup for their top center prospect, who’s producing at the second-highest North American league?
Here’s the Wild’s forward lineup from Thursday’s game in Carolina. I’ve put their percentile rank in offensive impact for this year according to Evolving Hockey next to their name.
Kaprizov (84) – Sam Steel (83) – Zuccarello (76)
Marcus Foligno (41) – Joel Eriksson Ek (56) – Jordan Greenway (10)
Boldy (39) – Freddy Gaudreau (31) – Ryan Hartman (62)
Brandon Duhaime (Not ranked) – Connor Dewar (4) – Ryan Reaves (12)
No room in the lineup? Offense isn’t everything, and players like Greenway, Boldy, and Dewar bring strong defensive value to the table. Still, for a team that needs scoring, they can find a place for someone with Rossi’s talents. Presumably, if Minnesota’s calling around for forwards, they already have spots earmarked for upgrades.
Despite all this, though, there isn’t an overwhelming call from the fanbase to summon their star prospect. There was more clamoring for a Rossi call-up last season, despite its potential to put Minnesota in a sticky salary cap situation. What the heck?
What pushback 10K Rinks got on Sunday’s Horvat article all fell under the umbrella of one sentiment: That Rossi wasn’t going to be a fix for the Wild’s problems.
That’s certainly possible. He wasn’t able to solve it this fall, at least not in a role where he played fourth-line minutes with no power play time.
But Rossi’s shown over the past two months that he’s just fine when he has the opportunity and minutes to be a Top-6 center. Say what you want about Rossi’s first 16 games this season, but he hasn’t had that kind of role in Minnesota. It feels silly to write him off for this season before seeing him get at least a crack at his natural role.
The bigger point in this, though, is: What do the Wild have to lose in seeing if Rossi can solve their scoring issues?
Remember, they’re a point ahead of the playoff bubble. This isn’t a team that’s clicking so well that you can’t disrupt the chemistry. It’s not like last year when the 5-on-5 offense was firing on all cylinders. As constructed, it’s a bubble team led by a superstar that is lacking the things the Wild drafted Rossi to do.
We’ve seen how far Hartman and Gaudreau can carry this team down the middle. Wild fans might be seeing the limitations with Steel, given his recent struggles. What’s being gained by allowing those three to block Rossi?
Hartman showed he had upside last season with 34 goals and 65 points with perfect conditions and luck. But with Gaudreau and Steel, we’ve probably seen it. Gaudreau’s going to max out as a 40-ish point player. Steel has 19 points in 28 games since joining Kaprizov and Zuccarello, so maybe he’d top out in the 50-55 point range for a full season.
If Rossi delivers on his promise, he’s going to be better than them. He might not, but isn’t it worth seeing if he can do what Boldy did for the team last year?
And if he ends up being just roughly as good as Steel, Gaudreau, or Hartman (or even isn’t), so what? They can send him into the offseason with a taste of the NHL, a feeling of progression, and a list of things to do in the summer to be better next year.
The best version of this year’s Wild team isn’t going to be the one that prays Kaprizov can score enough to propel them deep into the playoffs. They tried that last year with a more talented team, and seven Kaprizov goals in six games couldn’t do the trick. It’s one where they’re the most out of a confident, empowered Rossi, raising the ceiling of the high end of their lineup.
That truth is showing itself out right now, and the Wild would do well not to ignore it any longer.