Nobody needs to sell Michigan hockey.
It’s a legendary brand — the block “M” in jerseys and memorabilia, the history of nine national championships and the banners that fill all sides of the rafters of Jost Ice Arena. So, almost everyone wants to skate for the Wolverines.
But with such a huge talent pool, sometimes things are difficult. With so many star scorers and Hobey Baker hopefuls filling out the lineups, they also need to list penalty kill and last-six specialists. But what happens when you don’t have these guys on your roster?
You’ll get Rob Rossi—both his past and his present.
“I was more of an attacking player as a kid,” Rossi told The Daily. “And going into the team I was on at Northeastern, we struggled to score. And we fought to win games. So there was a lot of trying to find consistent ways to be influential in the game and I just kind of naturally gravitated to the penalty kill.”
After joining Michigan coach Brandon Naurath’s staff in August, Rossi returned to the penalty kill in a new way: as a coach. Because he coached special teams for six years at Harvard, he knows how to build an effective group. Thanks to his passion for analytics, which grew out of his love of Michael Lewis’ book MoneyballRassey knows how to find unique information about a game.
Just as importantly, he knows how to succeed on the penalty kill (PK) through recruiting. Although the Wolverines have managed to field an adequate PK this season, playing some of their best skaters on to killit’s not a position they necessarily want to put themselves in when it comes to next seasons.
While he develops the full range of abilities of talented skaters like freshman forward Adam Fantilly or sophomore forward Maki Samaskiewicz, they can’t skate every PK second. While coaches want their best players on the ice as much as possible, they can’t always do that; players like freshman forwards TJ Hughes and Jackson Hallum, for example, have prided themselves on PKs, skating in key situations for the Wolverines.
But none of them are penalty kickers for a living. Rather, it is an adaptation. With a successful kill rate of 78.8%, which is 41st in the nation, there are intangible lessons that the skaters simply must learn to absorb. And due to circumstances and age, these lessons have not yet been fully learned.
“Last year, we didn’t have a lot of guys who took penalties,” Rossi said. “So I think there’s a learning curve for some of the new things we’re trying to implement. But there’s also a learning curve to some of the penalty kill intangibles involved in “.
Getting the most out of this list comes down to gradually teaching them the skills that are essential to being a penalty kicker.
But through recruiting and development, Rassey can build a roster that already has that learning experience. And if Rossi’s career pit stops are any indication that he’s more than capable of doing just that – just ask his former bosses:
“Rob definitely added some analytics that we really didn’t have,” Harvard coach Ted Donato told The Daily. “… The other thing is, I think Rob really worked hard on his craft. He watched a lot of NHL videos, used his connections in the hockey world to constantly expand his knowledge.”
And he instilled those lessons in his team. While Harvard’s penalty kill wasn’t the nation’s leading during his tenure, they used analytical lessons to make their mark. Consider the 2016-2017 team that scored 11 goals in shortstop, tied for the best total in the nation. He also researched when to pull goaltenders and where skaters find great shot opportunities on the ice.
Between those data-driven findings and coaching several hot units that are among the best in the country, Russi’s success with the Crimson shows what he can do when given time to mold a program.
That construction starts on the recruiting trail, helped somewhere by Ressey’s recruiting experience for New England hockey teams. But Russi is not from New England. A native of Shelby Township, Michigan, he played, coached and was scouted in the USHL Midwest.
“I think a good recruiter is always open,” Donato said. “Whether it’s a coach or a player representative calling on behalf of a kid, you can use your connections. And Rob, of course, because of his experience in the USHL, has a lot of connections in the USHL.”
Rasi’s open ears are already paying off. Just look at the recent turnaround of forward Tanner Rowe, the top penalty killer for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, who Rossi trained last season until the end of the season. Previously committed to UMass, Rowe is now ready to bring those talents to the Wolverines.
“(Rassi) said I’d be a good penalty taker, a tough center because I know how to win draws and I’m a good 200-footer,” Rowe told The Daily. “Coach Naurata said I can hurt the team too, so that’s always good to hear.”
And judging by the team Rossi helped build at Harvard — the roster is still covered in his fingerprints — that vision is likely to have an impact. Armed with all of his experience on special teams, all of those tools could help him build his vision with the Wolverines.
“I’m always trying to learn, I’m always trying to adapt and find new and better ways to do things,” Rassi said. “I think being able to be involved in as many different things as possible and be responsible for (them) is just great for personal growth.”
So for an answer to the question of what Rossi can build if given the time and tools, look no further than the visitors’ bench on Friday night. Harvard’s roster is full of forwards he recruited, and he’s still implementing the lessons his analytics background brought.
While the Crimson may be in the past, they may also be a shot at Michigan’s future.