Video: The Regression of Zac Rinaldo

“He needs to play on the edge”

Those are the words that Paul Holmgren used to describe Zac Rinaldo’s style of play earlier this year in October.  But, that is only half of the comment that Holmgren made.  The second half was “and Friday I think he probably was a little bit over the edge.”  That short statement from Rinaldo’s GM perfectly describes Rinaldo’s season thus far.  It was made after a 2-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, where Rinaldo took four minor penalties, one of which put the Coyotes on the power play when they scored the game-winning goal.

When Rinaldo is on his game and playing it well, he can be a very effective fourth line player.  But, simply put, he has not been on his game this year.

What Makes Zac Rinaldo Effective?

Rinaldo’s game is predicated upon hitting, and speed.  A compact player with a low center of gravity, Rinaldo is able to catch opponents off guard and possesses impeccable timing with his hits.  He has the uncanny ability to either catch opponents with their head down, or catch them admiring their passes.  Listed at a deceptive 169 lbs (he has admitted he weighs more like 190), he has produced many violent collisions.  He has the ability to change the direction of a game and completely switch momentum with one bone crunching hit.  TSN even did a Top 10 feature on his best hits

When the Flyers drafted Rinaldo in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Draft, they knew what kind of player they were getting.  In the year before he was drafted, he had 191 penalty minutes, the most on his junior team, the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.  The year after he was drafted, he led the OHL in penalty minutes.  He was suspended for over 20 games for more than four questionable hits in his junior career.

As a result, many claimed he was too reckless of a player to ever play in the NHL.  His offensive game at the junior level was mediocre, so at the NHL level it would be essentially non-existent.  If he was going to ever play in the NHL, he needed to be mature, disciplined, and have better control of his temper.  After a year in the AHL in 2009-10 where he had 331 penalty minutes in 60 games, the Flyers thought he was ready for the big show, and kept him with the big club the next season.

Rinaldo’s First Two Years in the NHL

In his first season with the club, Rinaldo played like a loose cannon.  He hit everything that moved, got into 16 fights, and was first in the league in 10 minute and game misconducts with 9.  He took 3.1 penalties per 60 minutes on the ice (that number only includes penalties where an opponent did not go in the box with Rinaldo), but was able to draw 2.3 penalties in that time for a net of .8 penalties per 60.  This shows that although Rinaldo was taking too many penalties, his agitating qualities were able to goad opponents into taking them too.

Last year, Rinaldo was able to exhibit significantly more control of his game.  He elevated his number of hits per game from 2.65 to 4.47 in 2012-13, despite an increase of playing time of less than a minute.  He took just two ten minute misconducts, and got into five fights.  It was clear that Rinaldo played a much more disciplined game, and as a result was a much more effective player on the ice that didn’t hurt his team with penalties.  He took 2.3 penalties per 60, and drew 3.2, an impressive number that means he drew his opponents into taking more penalties than he took.  He played well enough that the Flyers gave him a two year extension.

Rinaldo’s Decline in 2013-14

After the visible improvements Rinaldo made in his first two years in the league, many were expecting Rinaldo to take the next step to become an elite 4th liner and agitator.  Instead, like most of the Flyers’ roster this season, Rinaldo has taken a step back.  He has taken an average of 3.9 penalties per 60, and drawn only .9 per 60, which are by far career worsts.  The 3.9 penalties taken per 60 is by far the worst in the league among regular players, with second place going to Chris Neil at 2.9.  Statistically, he has been the least disciplined player in the league.

Moreover, the penalties that Rinaldo has been taking have been particularly frustrating.  Ask any coach, and they will say that the penalties that they hate the most are offensive zone penalties, and lazy penalties.  Rinaldo has taken a total of 13 minutes of penalties in the offensive zone this season that put the Flyers’ shorthanded.  To put that number in perspective, that is more penalty minutes in the offensive zone for Rinaldo than 347 (54.9% of players who have played at least 10 games) other players in the NHL have taken altogether.   He actually has 33 penalty minutes in the offensive zone, but 20 of those came from the misconduct he got when he jumped Antoine Roussel, which I’ll touch on in a bit.  The Flyers struggle to score goals as it is, so putting them shorthanded and taking away opportunities in the offensive zone is particularly discouraging.

Although he is not at all relied upon to provide offense, the fact that he has just one assist in 32 games this season does not help make up for how he hurts his team with penalties.  Simply put, Rinaldo is hurting the team more than he is helping.

The Ian Laperriere Effect

When Peter Laviolette was fired early in the year, Ian Laperriere was brought behind the Flyers’ bench as an assistant coach.  For more than any other player, this was great news for Rinaldo because “Lappy” was a very similar player to Rinaldo in his playing days.  Rinaldo called Laperriere a role model, and Laperriere has taken Rinaldo under his wing as one of his “project players”.  Rinaldo has spent some time on the penalty kill after some teaching from Laperriere, and has been average in the area.

The curious thing is that being under Laperriere’s tutelage should have made Rinaldo a much more disciplined player.  Despite playing the game with as much passion, tenacity, and heart as anyone, Laperriere was a very disciplined player.  Do not let his 13 seasons of 100+ penalty minutes fool you, Laperriere did not put his teams in harm’s way by taking stupid penalties.  In the three years of data that are available, Laperriere’s highest penalties per 60 was 1.0.  If Laperriere took a penalty, it was often either a fight or one where he took an opponent with him, which is why his penalties per 60 is so low.

What makes Rinaldo’s undisciplined play this season so frustrating is that it’s happening under the watchful eye of Laperriere.  Laperriere should be helping him be more disciplined, not letting him run wild.  This effect is truly puzzling.

The Assault of Antoine Roussel

In Rinaldo’s first shift of a game against the Dallas Stars last week, just 1:15 into the game, Rinaldo jumped Antoine Roussel for no apparent reason.  According to Roussel, he’s never met or spoken to Rinaldo, so it’s not like there was a score being settled here.  Roussel is known as being one of the most effective agitators and pests in the NHL, but that alone is not grounds for jumping him with no provocation.

Rinaldo was rightfully criticized for that play, which looked very similar to what Shawn Thornton did to Brooks Orpik.  Fortunately, Roussel was not hurt on the play.  A play like that is absolutely unacceptable, and is a perfect microcosm of Rinaldo’s poor season thus far; undisciplined and ineffective.

Paul Holmgren is right that for Rinaldo to be an effective player, he needs to play on the edge, and walk a very fine line.  But right now, he is playing way over the edge, and hurting his team.

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