I've made a lot of jokes at Zac Rinaldo's expense, and while they are not wholly unwarranted, I'd like to set the cheap shots aside for now and take a look at what he has actually contributed thus far.
After the jump, I'll look closely at his penalties taken, his penalties drawn, his fights, his hits, and who controls the play when he's on the ice.
Rinaldo has taken an absurd number of penalties. He has been on the ice for 77 minutes and 55 seconds, 570th most in the NHL (Ed: all stats in this article are through 11/14). Yet his 58 PIMs rank second in the NHL.
Think about that for a minute. The average team has 19 skaters who have seen more ice time than him (remember, teams only dress 18 skaters each night), yet only one player in the league has accumulated more PIMs than he has.
It's not just because of fighting and misconducts, either -- he is second in the NHL in non-coincidental minor penalty rate, taking 4.7 of them per 60 minutes. That's more than any other team; Rinaldo skating by himself could have the Flyers leading the league in non-coincidental minors taken if they gave him more ice time.
I've heard the argument made that his penalties don't come at key times, but that doesn't hold up when you actually look at the history. Two-thirds of his penalties that put the team short-handed came when either the game was tied or the Flyers had a one-goal lead in the third period.
I've also heard the argument made that he doesn't deserve the calls he's getting, that he gets calls because of his reputation every time he hits someone. I'm skeptical of this claim (what small fraction of calls against the Flyers are considered "deserved" by Flyers fans?), but even if it's true, it's irrelevant. If referees call a penalty on him every time he blinks, then his being on the ice hurts the team until he can learn not to blink.
Let's turn to the positive: Rinaldo has also drawn a ton of penalties. He leads the league in drawing non-coincidental minors by a large margin, at 6.3 drawn per 60 minutes. It's a huge number, and more importantly, it's substantially more than he's taken. So while his penalty taking is a detriment, he's actually managed to more than balance it out.
The list of penalties suggests it's not all chance, either. He's put the Flyers on the power play by drawing penalties for roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct, cross-checking, instigator, slashing, hooking, tripping, and slashing. That sounds like an effective pest to me.
So while I enjoy making jokes about how many penalties he takes, the truth is that he's balanced that out so far.
Rinaldo is a fighter, and while different people value it differently, there is surely some value in having someone who can stand up for his teammates.
However, he's not off to a great start as a fighter. Hockeyfights.com has Rinaldo at 0-2-2 this year, with draws against Dustin Penner and Zenon Konopka and losses to previously-winless opponents Cody Bass and Matt Bradley. But more interesting to me is that none of those fights involved Rinaldo standing up for his teammates.
Two of Rinaldo's fights (Penner and Bradley) came when opponents stood up for their teammates after one of Rinaldo's hits. The other two both came when the Flyers had a 4-0 lead in the first period, a situation where the Flyers would probably prefer that Rinaldo decline the fight.
Not once this year has Rinaldo stood up for a teammate, fought to energize a team that's struggling, or even just won a fight. Adding toughness to the lineup might be good in the abstract, but he still needs to show that he knows when to fight.
Rinaldo has laid some big hits this year. NHL.com only picks a couple of hits per game to include in their online highlights, but Rinaldo has been featured four times already. It's safe to say he's probably the biggest hitter on the team right now, and that's a big part of why he's a favorite of many fans. Those hits have a lot of entertainment value, but we're here to talk about the effect he has on the game, not on the attendance count.
It's often argued that big hits can energize a team, so let's look for that. One of my favorite ways to assess who controlled the play is looking at shot attempts (including missed and blocked shots), because most shot attempts are the result of possession in the offensive zone and most good possessions in the offensive zone result in shot attempts.
Rinaldo has been credited with a hit 24 times this year. In the minute following one of his hits, the Flyers have been outshot 20-11. In the second minute after, the shots are even (17-17), and they go slightly against the Flyers (13-11) in the minute after that.
There is no evidence that Rinaldo's hits have given the team an energizing boost that would help them carry the play. If his hits have a positive impact, it's not a temporary momentum boost; it would have to be a longer-term impact of the fear of physical harm. So let's look at whether the team carries the play when Rinaldo is on the ice.
Actual hockey results
All of the above works in his favor, but none of these factors is a dramatic selling point.
He's drawing more penalties than he's taking, but doing a lot of both is risky. He's a tough guy, but he hasn't yet shown that he really understands who or when to fight. He lays big intimidating hits, but there's no sign of a positive impact on momentum.
In the end, his grade will be driven much more by his actual hockey results than by the penalties and fights and hits that dominate the conversation about him. So how does he look in that regard?
First, let's check what kind of situations he's seeing. The Flyers are still spreading their tough shifts around. Rinaldo is getting more than his share of defensive zone draws (4/14 among forwards with 5+ games), but against weak competition (13/14 in Corsi Rel QoC). Those seem like roughly neutral assignments.
When Rinaldo is on the ice, the opposition is carrying play. He has the lowest Corsi (shot differential) on the team, meaning the opponents have the puck in the Flyers end and are getting shots at the Flyers' net. If you're skeptical of Corsi, take a look at Todd's scoring chance summary -- Rinaldo has been on the ice for only three chances for and nine against, the worst ratio on the team and the only player worse than -2. On a team that is outscoring their opponents at even strength 46-34, he's been on the ice for more goals against than for.
Whether you prefer to focus on Corsi, scoring chances, or goals, the team has just been worse when he's on the ice. That is why he's only getting a couple of minutes of ice time per game.
And yet there are still people who point to the team's excellent 9-1-3 record with him in the lineup as proof of his importance. They imagine that a player who is on the ice for only a couple of minutes per game and makes the team worse during those few minutes could somehow be the driving force behind an excellent record. It just doesn't pass the logical reasoning test; it's only slightly more likely that Rinaldo drove those results than that Chuck Gormley was the reason the Caps were 9-0 in games he covered and 0-3 in games he didn't.
Rinaldo isn't giving the team some special spark. The goalies have just happened to play terribly when he wasn't in the lineup (0.850 save percentage, 4.00 GAA) and well when he was (the one regulation loss was the Winnipeg game, and the goalies have a 0.926 save percentage and 2.08 GAA in his other 12). Unless you think that seeing Rinaldo on the bench for 55 minutes has a special calming influence for Bryzgalov, you probably shouldn't read much into this.
Rinaldo does have more skill than someone like Jody Shelley, and a nice play here and there have caught people's attention. In all fairness, it's not like we expect the 12th forward to consistently win the play, either. With the intangibles all working in his favor so far, he's perfectly adequate as a 12th forward -- nothing more, nothing less.
The potential is there. If he can cut down on the minors he takes, if he can fight to stand up for teammates and change momentum, if he can lay big hits without charging, he can become a productive pest. Until then, he's just another guy, and when their other forwards get healthy, the Flyers should return Rinaldo to the AHL to work on discipline.