Many commentors have weighed in on Zac Rinaldo here over the course of the last two years or so. Enough have agreed on his seeming attitude that he has acquired a somewhat unsavory nickname - BatShitCrazy (BSC for short). He came to the team through the draft - 178th overall in 2008 - and spent another two years in juniors before playing on the Adirondack Phantoms last year and finally cracking the NHL roster this season with the Flyers.
Eric has done studies of his usefulness on the ice (http://www.broadstreethockey.com/2011/11/17/2564099/zac-rinaldo-penalties-fights-hits-flyers), we've compared him endlessly to Tom Sestito and Jody Shelley (http://www.broadstreethockey.com/2011/11/15/2564240/zac-rinaldo-tom-sestito-philadelphia-flyers), and the general consensus has varied from, "Love the way he plays at top speed," to, "holy lost marbles, batman - he's nuts!"
But a few commentors, myself included, have likened him to another Bobby Clarke favorite, Steve Downie (now with the Tampa Bay Lightning). Plenty of the posters were very upset in November of 2008 when Downie was traded (with Steve Eminger, who no one missed) to Tampa for Matt Carle. Now, in my opinion, Carle has turned out pretty darn good - but Downie has also blossomed into a good hard-nosed winger with some good scoring potential. This style of play is what Clarkie saw in Downie back in juniors before drafting him 29th overall (first round) in 2005. Downie then spent one last season in juniors, and in 2007 split his time evenly between the Phantoms and the Flyers.
Are these two players then truly similar? Does Rinaldo have the potential to be the next Downie, and get a 20+ goal NHL season? They are physically very similar - around 5'11" and 190 lbs - and both play hard with big hits and a real nasty edge ot their game. But are their skill sets equivalent?
First of all, let me put forward my hypothesis. NO. Steve Downie is far and away a better player than Rinaldo, and there's actually very little comparable between the two once you get past the size and vicious hitting. Now let me show you why.
Let's start with juniors - the potential the players each showed prior to being drafted, that (hopefully) justified their relative draft positions. The season before he was drafted, Downie played 61 regular-season OHL games. He scored 21 goals and had 52 assists for 73 points (1.20 points per game) while amassing an impressive 179 penalty minutes (2.9 PIMs/G). In comparison, Rinaldo had 7 goals and 7 assists in 63 OHL games (0.22 PPG) and 191 PIMs (3.0 PIMs/G) in the season before he was drafted. So Downie was scoring a full point per game more than Rinaldo in juniors, and using the typical conversion factor to project OHL points to NHL ones (0.30) Downie could be expected to score 30 points in a full NHL season while you'd be considered lucky to get 6 out of Rinaldo in 82 NHL games.
So, those results would seem to justfiy the draft positions of each player - Downie being a first round pick (albeit near the end of the round) and Rinaldo as a sixth round pick. But there are a lot of players that develop significantly in juniors, so looking at their final juniors seasons may be helpful. Both players finished their OHL careers at age 19, so there's no age differential to consider, and both played their last season in juniors the year after being drafted. And Rinaldo did improve in the three years since before the draft - in 2009 he scored 10 goals and 15 assists in 60 games (0.42 PPG, or 0.1 PPG at the NHL level) as well as managing 255 PIMs (a whopping 4.25 penalty minutes per game). By the time he was 19, Downie had also improved. In his final OHL season, Downie posted 92 points (35 G, 57A) in only 45 games for an impressive 2.0 PPG (projecting to 0.6 PPG at the NHL level; remember that number). He also somehow accumulated 124 PIMs (2.8 PIM/G). Again, even though both players had reputations as being reckless and dangerously uncontrolled, Rinaldo's only utility seems to be in taking penalties, not scoring - Downie banks both.
At this point in their respective careers, we see a slight difference in the two players. Downie left juniors and split the next two seasons pretty evenly between AHL and NHL action, as his coaches waited for his maturity to control his excessive aggression. Rinaldo spent his entire season in 2010 in the minors with Adirondack. One could make some arguments about 'player development' and 'playing to your competition' that would give an advantage to Downie here, but I deny them thusly - we'll simply compare AHL numbers. Over two seasons on the Phantoms, Downie played in 48 games, collecting 14 goals and 36 assists - good for just over a point per game (1.04 PPG, to be precise) - while also accumulating 244 penalty minutes (around 5.1 PIMs/G). In his full season with the squad, Rinaldo scored ... 3 goals and 6 assists with 331 PIMs in 60 games (0.15 PPG; 5.5 PIMs/G). So using the expected rate of return when a prospect moves from OHL to AHL (0.45), Downie was exceeding expectations slightly while Rinaldo was slightly underperforming. The similarity in disciplinary actions and penalty minutes per game demonstrate that each player was continuing their hard-charging play into the pro levels.
So what happens at the NHL level? It is certainly unfair to directly compare Downie this season with Rinaldo, as they're three years apart in age. So I figured to look at Downie's first pro season, where he split time with the AHL and NHL, in comparison to Rinaldo's year so far with the big club. It could be argued that Rinaldo has benefitted in some considerations from a full season in AHL play, or you could argue that Downie's season stats don't reflect how he would do in a full-time NHL role from training camp. Frankly, you can make whatever excuses you want - but the fact is, Downie continued to score at more than double the rate of Rinaldo. In 32 NHL games during his first pro season, Downie potted 6 goals and 6 helpers, plus 73 PIMs (0.38 PPG; 2.3 PIMs/G). Thus far in his NHL career, Rinaldo has one (1) goal and two assists in 18 games, but still was stuck with 77 minutes in the box (0.17 PPG; 4.3 PIMs/G). If you care to look at this as Rinaldo's second pro season, and compare it to Downie's second pro season (also split between AHL and NHL) the comparison gets slightly better as Downie only made 6 points in 29 NHL games (0.21 PPG) in his second season but he still stays out of the box more, with a consistent 2.2 PIMs/G. Rinaldo was rated a 5.5B by Hockey's Prospects (3rd/4th line forward, should reach potential but may drop one rating); Downie was a 7.0C (2nd line forward; may reach potential but may fall two rankings).
Looking at the projections from Hockey's Future and using the conversion rates projecting points, it is evident that Downie always had greater potential - but he is exceeding even that, playing on Tampa's first line occasionally and potting 22 goals in 2009 for Tampa. He has matured and doesn't seem to take the really bad penalties anymore (0.8 PTake/60 versus 1.3 PDraw/60 thus far this year), and really seems to be a player in the Flyer mold - hard-nosed, nasty, and able to score as well. Rinaldo ... not so much. Although he also draws more penalties than he takes, the raw numbers (4.8 PTake/60; 6.0 PDraw/60) illustrate that Rinaldo is an agitator at best, not a talent player. There are players in the league known as hard hitters - Darroll Powe for example - who don't accumulate penalties like ATM receipts. There are players who are considered agitators - Maxime Talbot - who also play other important roles on the team like penalty killers. And then, there are players who simply have one talent: putting the fear of injury into the opponent. Zac Rinaldo is of that last type, and all the indications are that is all he will ever be.
Do the Flyers need such a player on the roster? One could argue for it effectively (see: Buffalo and Miller incident) but the team already has a heavyweight fighter in Jody Shelley, as well as scrappers like Talbot and Wayne Simmonds. Do the coaches figure that the Flyers PK unit is so deadly that taking penalties could be a positive??? (I wouldn't think so, with only 3 shorties and 17 PP goals against). So realistically, is there a role for a one-dimensional player like Rinaldo on a squad where hustle and two-way play are considered the twin pillars of excellence?
I think not.