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Rinaldo's Game Evolving

by John Kopp / Philadelphia Flyers
A quick glance at Zac Rinaldo’s statistics reveals a player who fits the classic description of an agitator. Rinaldo has racked up 202 penalty minutes, including 14 fighting majors, while tallying a meager eight points.

Yet, coach Peter Laviolette said he sees more than a pugilist in Rinaldo, one of 12 rookies to suit up for the Flyers this season.

“He’s become a real good two-way hockey player for us,” Laviolette said. “He still brings a physical edge. He still hits. He can still fight. But I think what’s been impressive is to watch him evolve and to learn the game defensively.”

As with any rookie, that process is not necessarily a quick or seamless transition, but Laviolette has thrown more ice time at Rinaldo in the last two months. During the first four months of the season, Rinaldo averaged less than seven minutes of ice time per game. His playing jumped to 8:10 minutes in February and is up to 9:27 minutes in March.

“Now, he gets opportunities to check other teams top lines,” Laviolette said. “When you get a guy that’s physical like that, checking against other teams’ top players, it can work toward an advantage for your club. He’s done a nice job stepping up his role.”

Rinaldo, a 21-year-old, said he didn’t feel a need to prove he was more than a fighter, despite a staggering 331 penalty minutes with the Adirondack Phantoms last season. That total was the second highest mark in the American League.

“I didn’t feel I had to prove anything like that,” Rinaldo said. “I just want to play hockey and fighting and hitting is part of hockey. If it comes, I’m not going to back down from it. I’m not scared or anything like that. But I’m also going to play normal hockey – shoot, pass, score – if I have to and just be a total package, really.”

Rinaldo said he has spent much time this season working to become a better defensive player. He said he has practiced penalty killing, though he has not yet worked his way onto the Flyers’ unit. Rinaldo said he has experience playing the penalty kill from his time in the Ontario Hockey League.

While Rinaldo has made strides defensively, it’s the jarring hits he delivers that gets the home crowd and his teammates revved up. Against the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday, Rinaldo collected six hits, one off his season high.

“It’s a boost for us every time he gets a big hit and the crowd is screaming,” forward Maxime Talbot said. “It’s always positive for us.”

Rinaldo ranks fifth among rookies with 157 hits. On the Flyers, only Scott Hartnell has delivered more hits than Rinaldo, but Hartnell has the benefit of playing about 10 minutes more each game.

Asked to name the most difficult adjustment he has had to make playing in the NHL, Rinaldo ironically pointed to his hitting. He said it has been challenging to find the fine line separating a legal and illegal hit.

“It’s sad to say that I’ve kind of let up on my hits,” Rinaldo said. “I really don’t want to. But the way the rules are this day and age of hockey, I have to adapt if I want to stay in the league.”

Several of Rinaldo’s hits have drawn the attention of the league’s administrators, who are trying to mitigate blindsided hits and prevent concussions. The league levied a two-game suspension on Rinaldo in February for a hit he made on Jonathan Ericsson of the Detroit Red Wings. He’s also been fined for other infractions.

“I think (with) every hit that I deliver, they’re saying sometimes they’re cheap and sometimes they’re late,” Rinaldo said. “But it’s hockey. You play at your own risk and everything happens so fast. You have to be aware of who you hit and how you hit them and just take every precaution out there.”

While he aims to play within the rules, Rinaldo said he must maintain the aggressive style that makes him the player he is.

“I’m just going through the game and if a big hit comes in my way, I’m not going to back down from it by any means,” Rinaldo said. “If it looks clean and it looks within the rules, then I’ll definitely deliver it, without a question.”

Overall, Rinaldo called his rookie year “a big learning experience.” He said he’s tried to pick up lessons from each of the veterans on the team, no matter their position. He said he’s tried to draw aspects from the games of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and various defenders.

The lessons have come both on and off the ice, he said.

“I’m soaking up everything,” Rinaldo said. “Especially it being my first year, I’m just going through the motions with off-ice stuff and learning a lot of things from the older guys. It’s just a big learning experience for me right now. Next year, I’ll use all the tools I’ve learned and get better at hockey.”

Talbot said Rinaldo has become a more disciplined player with a better sense of knowing when to agitate.

“A lot of the rookies have progressed,” Talbot said. “Every game that you get a chance to play, I feel like you get experience. Experience plays a big role in progressing. He’s definitely one of the guys that have gotten better over the season.”

Now, Rinaldo is nearing the one portion of the season in which he has experience, albeit briefly. Rinaldo made his NHL debut in the playoffs last year, playing two games.
“It’s like a new world when playoffs open up,” Rinaldo said. “Everyone brings more than their best. Everyone brings 110 percent in playoffs. I’m a playoff player, so I can’t wait. It’s going to be really exciting.”
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