Taking a deeper look at Marco Rossi’s OHL dominance this season

There isn’t a shortage of players that have taken huge steps forward in 2019-20, but Marco Rossi’s emergence as one of the most dominant offensive players in the OHL has been one of the most impressive developments in this draft class. Belonging to a group of players in this draft that were unfairly punished for not being at the Hlinka for reasons entirely out of their control, Rossi actually seemed to be a slight dropper on most lists as we entered the season. But with an unbelievable first half of the season, Rossi has turned himself into a tremendous riser.

It’s still a little early in the season for my liking– 34 games isn’t a ton, and I think Rossi is still due for some regression– but Rossi’s dominance so far this season has been nothing short of unreal. He sits second in the entire Canadian Hockey League with 2.20 points per game, sitting just ahead of Alexis Lafreniere and behind only Connor McMichael. He’s averaging 1.12 primary points per game at even strength so far, the 5th best rate in the CHL and ahead of both Quinton Byfield and Alexis Lafreniere. As well, Rossi has been one of the most lethal powerplay attackers in Canada’s junior circuit thus far, averaging upwards of 0.6 primary points per game on the man advantage. He’s been Ottawa’s most important attacker so far this season, recording a point on more than 45% of the 67’s goals (accounting for the games Rossi has missed).

Let’s talk sustainability. Even over a full season, there’s still potential for a player’s statistics to be significantly impacted by puck luck, teammates, and other outside factors. Rossi hasn’t even played half a campaign yet, so his numbers could still be susceptible to significant regression. Unfortunately, we don’t have the on-ice numbers available to us at the OHL numbers to get a good sense of Rossi’s luck so far (I’d pay more money than you’d think for access to on-ice shooting percentage for draft-eligible prospects), but we can do our best.

Rossi is shooting 23% so far this year– 10% above the OHL average rate for a forward. Had he shot at an ordinary rate this season, he would have 10 goals so far– eight fewer than he actually does. Rossi is far from an average scorer, but maintaining a shooting rate of over 20% across an entire season is almost always the product of luck. He’s been red-hot as a shooter thus far; he’ll probably go through a cold stretch or two as the season progresses and his numbers will fall off accordingly. Rossi centers one of the most dangerous lines in the OHL, playing alongside a pair of OHL overagers in Joseph Garreffa and Auston Keating. They’ve also been one of the best shooting lines in the league, with the trio converting on about one of every four shots between them. In fact, Garreffa has the highest shooting percentage in the entire league at slightly over 30%. Time-on-ice numbers would be helpful here, but it would certainly seem like Rossi’s line is due for some shooting regression. When that happens, his point totals will feel the effects.

With that said, I do want to say that Rossi is still an exceptionally talented player. Even with puck luck on your side, it is unbelievably impressive to maintain a rate of comfortably over two points/game over a 34 game sample. A dynamic centre with terrific puck skills, Rossi has a wide array of offensive tools. He’s able to penetrate the slot with consistency using his edges, agility, and hands. He has no issues as a finisher, combining his elite puck skills with a deft ability to read the goaltender and find open twine. Rossi is at his most comfortable on the man advantage, making use of his additional time with the puck to exploit seams and connect on difficult cross-ice passes.

It’s possible that he ends up on the wing at higher levels, but Rossi is extremely comfortable down the middle at the OHL level. I have him as the fourth best centre eligible in 2020, with just Quinton Byfield, Anton Lundell, and Tim Stutzle ahead (Byfield and Lundell are very likely to stick at centre moving forwards; Stutzle could end up on the wing). Byfield’s quickness and all-around offensive toolkit makes him the easy number one, while Lundell’s exceptional intelligence and professional resume makes him a comfortable number two.

I’ve seen people criticize Rossi’s skating, but I have no idea where that’s coming from. He’s a dynamic attacker, accelerating through quick crossovers and a powerful stride. He’s able to deceive defenders by varying his speeds of attack and through a variety of stop-and-start moves. His edgework and agility are some of the best in the drafts, enabling him to weave through defensive structures and find space to produce. He’s effective through the neutral zone, dodging defensive players and winding his way into the offensive zone.

He loves to buttonhook off the zone entry, cutting back to create space for himself to facilitate.

We can see Rossi’s terrific first step here as he accelerates away from the Sarnia defender (#31). His ability to accelerate out of a full stop like this is tremendously valuable, allowing him to manipulate the pace of the game through explosive changes of speed. He’s able to set up on the wall and explode into the middle, catching defenders off-guard and finding space in dangerous areas.

Rossi’s top speed is decidedly above-average, but not elite like his first step and edgework. I was trying to find a good clip of him at full speed, but it proved to be more difficult than I expected because Rossi rarely operates at his maximum pace. He is very much an east-west player, employing lateral movement more than straight ahead speed. Highly dynamic players usually tend to gravitate towards the rush as the primary source of their scoring and chance creation, but that isn’t the case for Rossi– he’s at his best when his team is set up in the offensive zone. Odd-man rushes are harder to come by in the NHL, when players are more defensively responsible, so that tendency should bode well for Rossi’s adaptation to the NHL level in the future.

When Rossi does reach his highest velocity, it is often only for short bursts of open ice, like so:

When he has track to wheel on he takes advantage, but Rossi prefers to navigate traffic at a more moderate pace. He makes it through the neutral zone by carefully weaving around defenders; not by flying through at dangerously high speeds like Connor McDavid.

Rossi doesn’t always have to function as the puck carrier in transition– he frequently opts to move the puck to a teammate, gather speed through the neutral zone, and look for a return pass at full speed around the attacking blueline to go in for an opportunity.

Primarily a playmaker, Rossi is averaging close to a primary assist a game. His vision is exceptional– he’s able to see the play develop, identify lanes, and slide the puck through even the smallest of openings. He can thread cross-ice passes from the left half-wall on the powerplay, or work the puck down low towards the crease for point-blank opportunities.

Rossi can manipulate defenders and create passing lanes, especially in odd-man scenarios. He’s extremely patient with the puck, outwaiting defenders as lanes open up. On the play below, he stops up and finds the trailer for a great chance.

On this two-on-one, the defender slides to take away the pass, but Rossi is able to navigate around him and make a pass for an easy goal.

He’s an exceptional distributor on the powerplay, searching for cross-ice seams and putting the puck on a platter for teammates to catch the goaltender out of position. He likes to keep his feet moving on the powerplay, allowing him to attack the defence with speed and open passing lanes.

Rossi is a talented scorer: the 23% shooting percentage that he’s managed to maintain over half the season so far is solid evidence of that, even if it’s primed to fall off a bit. He’s a difficult player to categorize as either a “scorer” or “playmaker”, because he’s exemplary in both methods of goal-creation and his tendencies often seem to hinge on the manpower situation. At even-strength, Rossi is more of a shoot-first attacker: he has 21 even-strength goals and 17 EV primary assists thus far this season. But with the man advantage, Rossi is very much a playmaker, with 16 primary assists and just 5 goals on the powerplay. Working off the half-wall on his strong-side on the powerplay is much more inclined to opportunities on the powerplay– very few players are going to consistently beat the goalie from that area– whereas Rossi finds himself with much more freedom to go the net at even-strength, an area he has no fear of despite his 5’9″ frame.

The Austrian has a terrific set of hands, but what’s interesting about his game is that he isn’t as reliant on his puckhandling and on beating defenders in one-on-one scenarios as a lot of players with his small, quick, high-twitch profile. Rossi’s game is all about moving the puck to open space, and he uses his teammates very generously (of course, it’s a lot easier to do that when you’re centering one of the OHL’s best lines on one of the OHL’s best teams than it is for Quinton Byfield, for example, to do so with Sudbury). We’ll see his deft ability on the puck when he’s dodging a forechecker in the neutral zone, but it only seems to be a major staple of his offensive game when he’s driving the crease.

Rossi has a sneaky ability to find his way behind the defence for breakaway opportunities. Often, the centre will gather speed through the neutral zone, receive a pass, and burn the defence to go in all alone:

Sometimes, he’s able to slip in completely undetected behind the play and receive a pass right in front of the net. Look at how smoothly he’s able to receive a pass and put in the back of the net here:

This next clip is a terrific example of how Rossi’s intelligence and space creation can be a factor for him as a scorer. He drives in, pushing back the defence, and drops the puck back to a teammate who he has just created space for. As Rossi continues to cut across the middle, now without the puck, he finds a soft pocket of space, receives a return pass, and rips a shot home. This general attitude: move the puck to space and immediately go find space of your own is a terrific creator of offence and a big part of what has made Rossi so successful this season.

I wasn’t overly high on this player coming into the season, but Rossi has displayed significant growth and has forced himself into the top 5 conversation in a star-heavy draft. I’m still a little wary of his numbers so far this season– he’s sustained his extreme success for longer than I was expecting, but you should never bet on a player to continue to shoot 23% over a full season and I get the feeling his puck luck will turn somewhat in the back half of 2019-20. With that said, 2.2 points per game in the OHL is incredible for a draft eligible, and Rossi shows a host of skills that should make him a very effective offensive player at the NHL level. There’s absolutely top-line potential with this player, even if it ends up being on the wing instead of down the middle.

My primary concerns with Rossi aren’t anything about his game, but rather the circumstances around him and how they may be boosting his success this year. As a late September birthday, he’s the eighth oldest first time draft eligible in the entire CHL. Rossi was just eight days away from being drafted in 2019, where he likely would have been a top 20 pick, but not top 10 and definitely not top 5 even in a draft without the top-heavy crop of 2020 with his 2018-19 season. But at a certain point of offensive dominance, age doesn’t really matter anymore– if Rossi had been drafted in 2019 and this was his draft-plus-one campaign, we would be talking about him as a potential top 5 pick in a redraft. There’s also the strength of his team: Rossi can distribute the puck as much as he pleases, knowing that his linemates can keep the play going. Compared to a player like Quinton Byfield who had virtually no linemates with any sort of notable offensive skill through the first half of the year (Sudbury’s acquisition of Matej Pekar should help Byfield quite a bit), that’s a tremendous luxury.

Even with those factors in mind, it is obvious that Marco Rossi is a tremendously capable attacker with clear upside as a top line NHL forward. It’s far from difficult to imagine a scenario where Rossi goes in the top 5 in June, and I could even see him contending for third overall after Lafreniere and Byfield if he can maintain his dominant rate of scoring going forward.