Philadelphia Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo has wasted little time making a name for himself in the National Hockey League – more so with his fists rather than his stick. Rinaldo is part of a dying breed, one that uses physicality and a limited skill set to stir up the pot and give his team momentum. Since his rookie debut with Philadelphia last season, Rinaldo has embraced the role of agitator and some might even call him a goon. But this season he’s evolving and becoming one of the Flyers’ not-so-secret weapons.
At 5-foot-11 and just 180 pounds, Rinaldo is considered a middleweight – at best – by NHL standards. Throughout his entire career, even as far back as his days in the OMHA, Rinaldo was never scared to pick a fight with anyone and that gutsy attitude has remained with him all these years later. In 66 games last season, Rinaldo piled up 232 penalty minutes – which is to be expected from a fourth line agitator – but not as many came from fighting as one might expect.
The biggest problem with Rinaldo’s game is that too often he thinks with his body, rather than his mind. Too many times he takes stupid, unnecessary penalties in an attempt to stir up the pot with an opponent. It’s discouraging considering Rinaldo almost never single-handedly wins a game with his stick – in fact, he scored just two goals and added seven assists all of last season.
The excitement and energy Rinaldo bring to the lineup wasn’t worth the hole he was constantly putting the team in, forcing the penalty kill to spend more time on the ice than necessary. Many, including myself, wondered how much longer the Flyers – and their fans – would put up with his antics. Simply put, Rinaldo lacked poise. If a player would come after him, he’d go off the deep end and take matters into his own hands, no matter what the consequence, or how much time was left on the clock.
But that has changed – at least early on this season.
Rinaldo hasn’t diverted from the physical player he’s been. He still loves to drop the gloves – even if he’s well out of his weight class. Last week, while trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first period, Rinaldo was challenged to a fight by B.J. Crombeen. In two punches he knocked out Tampa’s bad boy and the Flyers eventually came back to win 2-1 and his fight was considered the turning point. As impressive as his fights typically have been this season, it’s the little things in Rinaldo’s game that are far more encouraging.
Tuesday night’s game against the Winnipeg Jets might have been the best showing from the 22-year-old in his young career. The Flyers walked away with a 3-2 win and while Tye McGinn and Jakub Voracek got most of the credit on the score sheet, Rinaldo might very well have been Philadelphia’s best player.
Early in the first period, Rinaldo drew a holding penalty off of Anthony Peluso, who was appearing in his first NHL game. The two were scraping after a play and Peluso immediately threw down in anticipation for a fight but Rinaldo kept his cool and inched away until the referees broke it up.
There was a similar occasion in the second period with Rinaldo acting in the same manner.
After laying a vicious – but clean – hit in the offensive zone, he was leveled by Peluso long after the puck had passed him and Rinaldo picked himself up and
skated away, rather than going straight after the perpetrator – who earned a boarding penalty. That would not have been the case 10 months ago.
By this point in the game, Rinaldo had completed his mission of agitating the Jets to the point that the team was thrown off of their game – and it was noticeable. After a scrum in front of the net, Jets forward Dustin Byfuglien pushed Rinaldo to the ice and then two handed him with his stick, clearly out of frustration. I should have resulted in another penalty, but instead when unnoticed. At just 9 minutes and 46 seconds of ice time, Rinaldo saw the least amount of any Flyers player but was almost as important as the likes of Claude Giroux or Danny Briere when they’re clicking on all cylinders.
Rinaldo will never be able to break the goon label he’s been saddled with – but that’s fine. He’ll always be a fourth line player for whom points come at a premium but if he can play a smart, disciplined brand of hockey, he could prove to be very useful for the Flyers as the shortened season progresses.