Playoff push providing valuable lessons for Wild’s Rossi

Photo: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

Marco Rossi had quite the detour, but he is back on track.

The next task for the 20-year-old Iowa Wild centerman is to help put his club into the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Rossi had just completed two standout seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with Ottawa, where he was named the league’s most outstanding player in 2019-20. His 81 assists and 120 points in just 56 games had led the entire Canadian Hockey League as well. Minnesota selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2020 National Hockey League Draft, making Rossi the second-highest Austrian-born player ever drafted (long-time NHL star Thomas Vanek went fifth overall in 2003).

But rather suddenly, Rossi found himself with much more to consider in life than hockey. A bout with COVID-19 and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) combined to all but wreck the 2020-21 season for Rossi. He played one game for Zurich SC of Switzerland’s National League and four games for Austria at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship before his season ended for good.

This past fall, Rossi went to training camp with Minnesota ready to go. Now a season in the American Hockey League has helped to restore some more normalcy for Rossi, who has played 63 games with Iowa as well as his first two NHL contests with Minnesota. His 52 points (18 goals, 34 assists) ― a club rookie record ― have him one point off the team scoring lead, and he ranks seventh among all AHL rookies.

“I feel really good,” Rossi said. “Really happy to be here. And now it’s just about getting better every day, improving my skill set, improving my game, trying to win games and make the playoffs, and make an impact.”

And so Rossi has an opportunity to experience late-season pressure hockey with Iowa, the closest available approximation to the nightly intensity that he will one day face in Minnesota.

With one game remaining on their regular-season schedule, a Wednesday night home clash with Rockford, the Wild sit one point behind Texas for the Central Division’s final playoff spot. If the Stars lose in regulation at Manitoba on Tuesday, Iowa will get in with a win over the IceHogs.

Iowa has already helped deliver 2019 first-round pick Matt Boldy to Minnesota, where he has excelled in his rookie NHL season after beginning his pro journey working with head coach Tim Army and his staff to fine-tune his game. And Rossi will not be far behind: With roster spots potentially coming up this summer in Minnesota, he is a strong bet to take on full-time NHL duty next season after focusing on getting used to the pro game this year.

“I’ve played a full season, so I can say now I’m more prepared than the beginning,” Rossi said. “It’s a huge difference from junior to pro. It’s just more mature. [Players] know exactly what to do. They’re really strong. But you learn these things, and you know what to do and in what kind of situation, so you learn that by playing more games. I feel really comfortable now.”

Rossi also had a rather unique opportunity to learn from Eric Staal, who came to Iowa in January for a four-game tune-up in preparation for the Winter Olympics. Staal’s arrival meant that an AHL rookie had a chance to dash off some questions for tips and advice from someone who played 18 NHL seasons (1,293 games), captained the Carolina Hurricanes, and won a Stanley Cup.

“I always talked with him,” Rossi said. “Little things about face-offs… He just gave me some advice, what is good to do, a face-off against a bigger guy… against a smaller guy… righty… lefty… [the offensive] zone and in the defensive zone. It was asking a lot of questions, so it was really good that he was here.”

Even with Staal gone now, Rossi has Army and the Iowa coaching staff.

“It’s good,” Rossi said. “I mean, [Army] has so much experience in hockey, as a coach and even as a player, too. So he knows what he’s talking about. And, I mean, he’s really intense, and you can see how much passion he has for that. For us as a team or as a player, we can learn so much from that. [Army and I] always talk about the little things, even a lot of video meetings [so] that I can see where to improve and to get better.”

An 8-4-0-1 mark in April, including a crucial 5-3 win in Rockford on Sunday, has made for an intense finish to the season for the Wild.

Said Rossi of going through this late-season charge, “Especially the last few games now… We knew, ‘Okay, we have to win.’ The pressure was on us. So you can kind of learn these things right now in these situations when it’s really intense.

“And when you have to win to make the playoffs, I mean, that makes you a better player because you learn how to play under pressure.”