Rossi healthy, thriving in Iowa after COVID scare

American Hockey League

DES MOINES, Iowa – With under five minutes to play in regulation in a Friday night AHL game, the Iowa Wild trailed the Grand Rapids Griffins 5-3. In need of a spark on the power play, top prospect Marco Rossi was ready to light the fuse.

In a play that incapsulated many of his best traits, Rossi had just popped into space as the puck skittered to AHL veteran Joe Hicketts at the center point. Hicketts wound up, let go a shot that missed wide. But with his high-end anticipation skills, Rossi was already on the way to the net as soon as Hicketts began his backswing. As the puck smacked off the back boards, it came out right as Rossi was skating into the perfect spot. The 20-year-old Austrian star one-timed the puck just under the crossbar and past a sliding Calvin Pickard to get the Wild back within a goal and remind everyone at Wells Fargo Arena enjoying “$2 Beer Night” why he was a top-10 NHL draft pick. It was an elite-level finish on a broken play that began more out of desperation as a power play was about to expire and ended in Iowa seizing momentum in the game.

The Wild would go on to tie the game, only to end up losing in overtime, but coming back from two goals down with under five minutes in regulation, it was a point well earned.

For Rossi, it was another positive step in the right direction for a player coming off of a nightmarish 2020-21 season that had nothing to do with on-ice performance.

Rossi appeared in just five total games between the Swiss National League and 2021 World Junior Championship as he dealt with a serious bout with COVID-19. After he was deemed recovered from COVID-19, unbeknownst to Rossi, he had developed myocarditis, a troubling heart ailment that many COVID-19 survivors have contracted as an after-effect of dealing with the virus. The myocarditis was spotted thanks to Rossi’s pre-training camp physical with the Wild, but it kept him off the ice and unable to exercise for months.

As Rossi told The Athletic’s Michael Russo last spring, there were nights he went to sleep unsure if he’d wake up in the morning because of the seriousness of his heart condition.

Following doctor’s orders, Rossi was unable to do much for a long time, but it allowed him to return to health. He was cleared to skate over the summer and later to play in actual games for Austria during Olympic qualifying. From there, he went straight to Minnesota’s training camp in hopes of proving he was all the way back and ready to earn a spot in the NHL. He ultimately was sent to the AHL, a move that put Rossi’s development first and ensured that he’d be able to get back up to game speed and learn the pro game while ensuring his strength and conditioning continued to progress after a long layoff.

With Iowa, Rossi is in the role that the Wild hope he’ll ascend to eventually at the NHL level. He is centering the farm club’s top line, playing massive minutes every game, running the top power-play unit from the half wall and even playing on the PK. He has been given the trust at the AHL level that takes a lot longer to earn in the NHL and the more reps he gets in the role he is in as a top player, the better.

“For me, it’s just important that I play as much as I can right now. Now I play every game, I think more than 20 minutes, like 20 to 25 minutes and that’s the best I can get right now. I play every night so many minutes, power play, penalty kill,” Rossi said during a phone interview a week after he scored that big goal.

Rossi has rewarded Iowa and its coaching staff for their trust in him with solid production. He has 11 points in nine games so far, with three goals and eight assists, most of which have been primaries. Generally, the Wild have had better possession numbers with Rossi on the ice as well. According to InStat’s tracked data, Rossi has a 58% Corsi for percentage through nine games.

The amount of minutes Rossi is playing has proven both to him and the Wild organization that if he’s not all the way back from his health concerns, he’s very close.

“I feel really comfortable,” Rossi said. “I had to do a lot of work, because after a few months when you don’t do anything, it’s really hard to get back. But I had a really good summer with my personal coach. We did a lot of good things. Then I went with Team Austria, I had five games with them. Those first few games were really hard, but then I got comfortable. With Minnesota in training camp, I was able to build my confidence up there too. I feel really good, my conditioning is better than before, so everything is looking really good.”

Even when the Wild had issues with players in COVID protocol, they called a number of prospects up from the Iowa Wild, but left Rossi in Des Moines. It may have been tempting to inject some more skill into the lineup with him there, but the long-term vision remains the most important for the Wild.

For Rossi, not getting the call didn’t impact him one way or the other. He says that the coaches in Iowa, which includes former NHL assistant Tim Army as head coach, have really helped him develop. He can tell that he’s progressing, which makes it easier to keep his focus and not worry about that first call-up. It will come in due time.

“I’m not thinking too much about it,” he said of the chance to play in Minnesota. “My focus right now, here with the Iowa Wild. I’m focusing 100% here. I want to give the best of them. If I think too much about Minnesota, my focus is not in the right place. I just need to be patient. It’s going to come one day.”

Right now, Rossi is living just outside Des Moines with his girlfriend. He says having her has really helped him feel at home as she often cooks many meals that he was used to eating in Austria. That little dose of comfort has made life in America’s heartland fairly enjoyable for the young forward, allowing him to focus on his on-ice performance and continue progressing.

The Wild have been very hands-on with Rossi, from helping him get the medical care he needed and giving him the space to get healthy and now providing the best development opportunity to get him back on track after his health scare. Now they’re regularly checking in on him and making sure he has the support needed. Meanwhile, the Iowa coaches have given him every opportunity to learn how to be a go-to player at the professional level.

What happened to Rossi could have impacted him much more significantly than just his hockey career. There was real concern at times about his quality of life. Through his own hard work and determination, under the supervision of medical professionals, Rossi has gotten his career back on track far quicker than most probably could. He’s playing, he’s comfortable and most importantly, he’s healthy.

Peters Scouting Report

I went to see Rossi play in Des Moines on Nov. 5 against the Grand Rapid Griffins. He had one goal and one assist in the game, four shots on goal and saw nearly 22 minutes of ice time in the overtime loss. He did have one hard-luck turnover that led to a goal against, but was generally making a positive impact on a shift-by-shift basis.

I’ve also gone back and watched more of Rossi’s games this year on InStat to get a better picture of how he’s performed this season and I watched his pre-Olympic qualifier games with Team Austria to see where he is now compared to where he was then. Here are some of my general thoughts:

Two things have been particularly noticeable about Marco Rossi’s game from when he returned to action at the pre-Olympic qualifier to now: His skating looks a lot quicker and powerful, and his ability to battle and win pucks is at a much better level. Those are two things where strength and conditioning can play a significant role. He’s much further along in that regard.

One thing that has always been true of Rossi is that he has elite-level hockey sense. His ability to make plays through anticipation, quality reads and a good understanding of time and space, was never really lost. He’s just able to execute better now because he’s getting that timing back. Everything happens quicker at the pro level and he never seemed to be behind the play.

Rossi looked really comfortable on the power play, dictating play from the half wall. He had a primary assist on a Mason Shaw goal, where he was able to place the puck perfectly for Shaw to one-time it just before an oncoming defender got a stick there. It was all perfect timing and execution on Rossi’s part. Same thing with Rossi’s power-play goal described above as he anticipated the carom off the back wall and was able to skate into it for an elite-level finish.

In other games that I’ve watched this season, Rossi is finding the soft pockets where he can make plays and be a more dangerous scoring threat. He reads defenses well and can sneak into the high-percentage areas just in time for a scoring chance.

Rossi is in the right place for now in Iowa and there’s not much need for the Wild to rush him. Both the team and the player are much better served with him routinely playing 22 minutes a night, being a featured offensive player for his team and continuing to build confidence. With his conditioning in the right place now, he can focus on building back his offensive toolkit and becoming a more dominant player at the AHL level. He’s not terribly far from being able to do that. Once he gets to that point, the Wild can easily call him up when they need an extra dose of skill.

Lastly, given what Rossi has been through over the last year, seeing how he has battled back and recovered. The fact that he’s been able to return to this high level of performance this quickly shows how gritty of an individual he is because it took a ton of work. All of that alone makes you wonder just how far he is going to take his career. The Wild knew they had a good player right when they drafted him, but after seeing what he’s been through and how far he has come in such a short amount of time, they might just have a truly special one.

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