Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: My Take on Rinaldo and Emotion vs. Stupidity

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RINALDO AND THE FINE LINE BETWEEN EMOTION AND STUPIDITY

There is simply no justifying Zac Rinaldo’s hit on Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang in the first period of Thursday’s game. Letang had his back turned the entire time as Rinaldo approached and Rinaldo launched himself by jumping into the hit.

This was not a case of a player worsening a hit by turning at the last moment or of the impact of the hit being what lifted the checker’s skates off the ice.

Plain and simple, it was a bad hit that is worthy of suspension.

In order to be an effective hockey player, Zac Rinaldo must skate a very fine line between being an aggressive player and being a reckless one. Unfortunately, he has repeatedly shown on his career that his judgment cannot be trusted to understand the boundaries.

Even putting aside his numerous suspensions in junior hockey, he had four in the American Hockey League in a single season and, on Monday, will learn many games he will get in his third NHL suspension and fourth NHL supplemental disciplinary action overall. However many games he gets — the prediction here is five — it will be impossible to argue that it was too harsh or based solely on reputation.

Zac Rinaldo got his reputation for good reason: he can’t help himself. What’s more, his lengthy recent stint as a healthy scratch coupled with the team-wide frustrations this season plus the fact that Thursday’s opponent was arch-rival Pittsburgh made the ensuing incident almost predictable. It didn’t take clairvoyance to know beforehand that Rinaldo would put the pedal to the metal and throw any iota of discipline out the window.

Actually, even before the game, there was some pressbox banter on setting the over-under for the number of penalties Rinaldo would incur and how many penalty minutes he’d accumulate in the game. It wasn’t a certainty that he’d do something suspension-worthy, but it was probable that he’d get at least one offensive-zone penalty (he got two in his brief time in the game) and a cinch that he’d visit the sin bin in the game at least once for interference, roughing, etc.

I do not believe that Rinaldo specifically goes out looking to injure opposing players. He’s not a sociopath. What he is, however, is reckless and severely lacking in judgment and common sense. Rinaldo seems to view periodic suspensions as an unpleasant but unavoidable job hazard. He is rather matter-of-fact and detached about being subject to supplementary discipline. Always has been, always will be. If anything, the one thing that upsets Rinaldo is when he gets “reputation penalties” on clean hits.

The Flyers tried to practice some damage control yesterday after Rinaldo half-jokingly said that he changed Thursday’s game for the better for his team. While Rinaldo may very well feel bad that Letang was injured on the play and regret if people think he was gloating about causing an injury, he is also not about to tone down the way he plays. Additionally, he was not joking about believing the Flyers benefited from the tone the game subsequently took on over the rest of the game.

Rinaldo wasn’t even entirely wrong about his assessment. He was 100 percent wrong in feeling like he’d made a positive impact. In reality, he was damn lucky the team stepped up to kill off the Penguins’ five-minute power play (during which time, a Christian Ehrhoff shot that ticked off the inside of the goal post was the scant margin between emerging unscathed and yielding at least one goal). It should also be said that removing Letang as a power play weapon from the point may have helped the Flyers in ultimately going 6-for-6 on the penalty kill against the fifth-ranked power play in the NHL.

Where Rinaldo was not wrong was that the Flyers fed off the emotion of the successful five-minute kill. They fed off the adrenaline of all the ensuing fights from the second period. Playing for the fifth time in seven nights, the team’s legs seemed heavy — which contributed to why the ice seemed tilted early — and then they had the adrenaline and cathartic emotion take over the rest of the way.

I do NOT think Rinaldo deserves an ounce credit for that. The rest of the team deserves the credit for weathering the early storm, galvanizing as a team and then finding a way to win on a night when their own power play (usually their biggest strength) was contained until the winning goal.

The Flyers really did need a game like that. They didn’t need Rinaldo’s actions in any way, shape or form but they did benefit from literally fighting for one another as a team, with even the likes of Michael Raffl (for the second time this season), Jakub Voracek and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare dropping the gloves.

Those who don’t understand what happened also don’t understand what makes a hockey team — not just the Flyers, any team — tick. It was not even the fights in and of themselves. It was the feeling of unity under trying circumstances. The Flyers have been losing and unable turn things around in a sustained way. They have a host of regulars missing due to injury. They were coming off a humiliating loss where they got methodically picked apart defensively and in goal by a team they used to beat almost automatically.

Something had to be done for their own internal equilibrium as a team before they temporarily parted ways for the All-Star break. That did NOT include getting dominated in the first period and having one of their players put the team shorthanded for five minutes and get suspended. It did, however, call for other guys to step up and to step out of their comfort zone.

For example, I had no problem with what Jakub Voracek did in instigating a fight with Rob Scuderi. Yes, he took himself off the ice for 17 minutes with his instigation penalty and 10-minute misconduct on top of the fighting major. Yes, the initial hip check by Ron Scuderi was clean. Ordinarily, it would be a very ill-advised response for the NHL’s Art Ross Trophy race leader to react that way.

Neither Voracek (second career fight) nor Scuderi (first NHL fight in nearly 700 games) are guys who drop the gloves under normal circumstances. As a matter of fact, defensive defenseman Scuderi had only one other major penalty in his entire NHL career, and Voracek gave him no choice about the fight. From a distance, Voracek’s response may seem excessive or downright stupid. From the bench and the dressing room, it was galvanizing.

What Voracek was internally directed. It fired up the team, who had perhaps its most emphatic penalty kill of the game in killing off the two-minute shorthanded portion of his 17 penalty minutes. It was cathartic to Voracek himself. He also fired up the fans who have (rightfully) been down on the team all season.

From a hockey team psyche perspective, what Voracek did was beneficial. Conversely, Rinaldo’s actions were not justifiable under any circumstances. If that sounds like a contradiction — and it is to some degree when viewed from afar — then you don’t understand the nuances of how emotion plays into the game.

As for all the “Flyers are goons” talk emanating from western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, let it be reminded that it was the Penguins and not the Flyers who recalled a player like Bobby Farnham — a career AHL agitator/fighter albeit a middleweight — specifically for this game and then returned him to the AHL. The Flyers did not summon heavyweights Zack Stortini or Jay Rosehill.

Pittsburgh sent a very clear pregame message by recalling Farnham that they were every bit as ready to get down and dirty as Philadelphia. If the Penguins’ overriding intention going in was to play a clinical and disciplined game to take advantage of their overall talent advantage on the Flyers — and let’s be truthful, the Pens are a superior team to the Flyers at least when they play the rest of the NHL — they went about it in a funny way by recalling and dressing Farnham.

Additionally, any team that employs Steve Downie, whether it’s the Flyers (twice), Lightning, Avalanche or now Pittsburgh, knows full well that he is a player who has to push the envelope to be a factor. His own effectiveness is based on how successfully he walks the discipline line, and he is another player who has shown himself to be prone to doing something dumb at any given time. Dressing Downie in any game means accepting the risk of him doing things that put his team shorthanded for four or five minutes at a time.

It so happened that Rinaldo’s stupid action on this night was something suspension-worthy and more reprehensible than Downie collecting two extra minor penalties before he got thrashed in his fight with Luke Schenn (a fight even more lopsided than the one with Steve Olesky last year that ended up with Downie being hospitalized on the night of his return to a Flyers uniform). But it’s like Steve Downie is a paragon of clean play and respect for the game or opponent’s safety. He’s no better than Zac Rinaldo.

Neither team involved in Thursday’s game came in pure and innocent and neither one left that way. Let’s not pretend otherwise due to a predilection for the orange laundry with a “flying P” crest or the white laundry with a hockey-playing penguin crest.

Here’s the truth: What Rinaldo did made everyone who saw it cringe.

The Flyers themselves know it was an indefensible hit. Both Craig Berube and Ron Hextall said more by what they did NOT say. If either one had felt the major penalty and game misconduct Rinaldo received was sufficient punishment, they would have said so in no uncertain terms.

Instead, both declined to offer a public opinion on the play and said it was up to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety to determine whether the play was suspension worthy. In his postgame news conference, Berube did concede that “it’s a penalty” because “you can’t hit from behind.”

In other words, while they aren’t going to publicly throw Rinaldo under the bus, they also aren’t going to claim what he did was in any way justifiable.

Rinaldo’s own teammates were not energized in the moment by the bad hit on Letang so much as they were forced into damage-control mode and then drew energy off surviving the five shorthanded minutes and the way the rest of the game unfolded. Again, therein lies the difference.

Plain and simple, Rinaldo is someone who has no filter, on or off the ice. The latter part is actually endearing at times when it does not involve getting himself into even bigger trouble than he gets himself into by some of his on-ice actions. He never ducks or hides from answering for himself but he does himself no favors at times like these.

Dealing with Rinaldo on a regular basis around the rink, he is someone who is actually very easy to like as a person. He’s always approachable, always in a good mood, enthusiastic and talkative. He’s always the first one to say hello or initiate small talk conversation, and is both polite and laid back when he steps off the ice. He’s especially good around kids at the rink.

Watching Rinaldo practice on a regular basis, you can see that he has an excellent work ethic, which is part of why his assistant coaches through the years — but especially current assistant coach Ian Laperriere — have been quick to advocate for him.

Rinaldo has always craved the chance to be a regular part of the penalty killing rotation. He has not particularly shined in periodic experiments, which would be necessary for him to get longer looks in that role. While some would say the problem is that he can’t be trusted not to take an additional penalty, the bigger issue is that he is still a work in progress in learning the nuances of defensive play at the NHL level.

Believe it or not, Rinaldo actually has nascent hockey skills that rarely surface in games. Instead, they show themselves in casual environments, such as the end of practice or the Flyers-Phantoms scrimmage in Allentown this September when he was dipsy-doodling with the puck and actively looking to score a goal since it was obviously a no-hitting environment.

In game situations, Rinaldo is still a one-dimensional specialist. He goes out, throws his body around on the forecheck and tries to get the team’s adrenaline pumping and emotion elevated. Sometimes he picks his spots well — such as the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when he actually drew more penalties on the opposition than the ones he received. Too often, though, he descends into recklessness and hurts his own team.

Dallas Stars forward Antoine Roussel is an example of the type of player the Flyers wish Rinaldo would become. Roussel, who is of similar size, style and skating ability, plays every bit as much on the edge as Rinaldo. He,too, is quite prone to landing on the wrong side of the discipline line.

The difference: Roussel has successfully turned his own long-nascent hockey ability into a means of making himself valuable in ways beyond the hits he throws and opponents who are more concerned with him than the game. Roussel kills penalties (averaging 1:52 of PK time this season and 1:40 last season). He has developed himself into a double-digit NHL goal scorer as well after NOT seeming to be on that track in his earlier years.

I’ve seen both players enough in game action — and Rinaldo regularly in practice — to say that Antoine Roussel is not a naturally better player than Rinaldo. He’s just done a better job at taking things he works on into a game setting.

Rinaldo talks the talk about wanting to help his team in a variety of ways and even puts in the work at practice but he is either unable or unwilling to put that into practice when he’s given a shift on the ice. He wants to be trusted yet does not do the things to make himself more than a one-note player.

The Flyers have already put a lot of time and patience into trying to work with Rinaldo and developing him into a player who does for them what Roussel (who is one year older than Rinaldo, was originally undrafted and arrived later in the NHL) does for Dallas. Philly still seems committed to that project, having already signed Rinaldo to a contract extension.

The latest incident raises legitimate questions about whether Rinaldo is even capable of staying out of trouble or elevating himself into a player worthy of being in an NHL starting lineup. The answer seems to be no.

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