Back in training camp, Travis noted that for the second year in a row, Zac Rinaldo wanting to become a complete player was a hot September story.
Rinaldo told Sam Carchidi, "Personally, what I want to do is score some goals, play with the puck, and not kind of get mixed up with too much fighting."
He told Anthony SanFilippo that he hoped to stay on the top two lines, to "make a mark that isn’t simply the result of plastering an opponent to the glass".
He told Tim Panaccio that being on the top two lines in the AHL would let him "pass the puck more, shoot the puck a lot more and not concentrate on just hitting and draining a lot of energy. [He] would create energy by scoring and getting a lot of assists".
It seemed crazy to take this at face value. Rinaldo hadn't had more than 10 goals or 30 points in a season since he was a 16-year-old in the OPJHL, and that couldn't all be his teammates' fault, right?
Unfortunately for him, we still can't really answer that question. He did get a stint on the top line, but it was only a couple of games. Perhaps it was telling that coach Terry Murray's explanation for the move was that he wanted to protect Brayden Schenn from getting roughed up, rather than because he hoped to get more out of Rinaldo. Rinaldo played with Schenn or Sean Couturier for much of the next four games, posting two goals and an assist, but was soon back with players like Ben Holmstrom and Matt Ford.
So while we can't definitively rule out the possibility that he has an undiscovered offensive touch that top linemates could bring out, his results this year don't scream untapped potential. After 17 games, he still just has three points, tied for 13th-16th on the team. That puts him behind three defensemen and tied with a fourth. It puts him behind Jason Akeson, who's only been in the AHL for three games. It puts him on a pace for an NHL equivalency of eight points over 82 games.
In most lines of work, you don't get a promotion until you've proven you're ready for it by doing what's expected of someone the next level up. Rinaldo certainly hasn't done that yet.
So I'm done talking about his scoring potential. Let's change the conversation and talk about what he can be: a defensive presence who can grind out some tough minutes. Last year he got just 7:29 of ice time per game, but they weren't sheltered minutes -- he had the third-most defensive zone starts on the team and was used against mediocre-but-not-terrible forwards. He had the worst shot differential on the team, but most 12th forwards do worse in softer minutes. It really wasn't a bad debut for someone as young and unheralded as him.
To become a legitimate option as a grinder in the NHL on a consistent basis, there's just one thing he needs to do: cut down on his penalties.
He has talked a lot about not wanting to be known as just a fighter; he told Dustin Leed last year, "It sucks, it really sucks (when people view you as only a fighter), every one busts my balls all the time." And indeed, he has apparently worked on that this year -- he doesn't have a single fight yet, a year after averaging a fighting major every four games.
But fights weren't really the problem. If he wants to start a game by getting punched by Zenon Konopka, that won't really hurt the team any. What hurts the team is when he takes penalties that put them shorthanded, which unfortunately he did as often as anyone in the league last year. That is where his discipline comes into play, what he needs to work on this year.
Since I don't see him as a scorer, I don't particularly care that he's not scoring in the AHL. But he continues to fail badly on the penalty front. His PIMs are down this year as a result of fighting less (45 PIM, 30th in the AHL), but he is still putting his team shorthanded more than anyone else in the league.
Among players with at least 35 PIM, here are the league leaders in shorthanded penalty minutes (coincidental minors have not been removed from these totals, but Rinaldo has none of those so removing them would actually put him further ahead of the field):
To be a significant contributor as a grinder, Rinaldo will have to learn to play sound defensive hockey. He doesn't add enough at the offensive end to make up for the times he puts his team shorthanded.
His defenders will argue that these are reputation calls, that he is playing a clean game but is still getting whistled. There may be a bit of truth to this, but he is not unique in this regard -- every player who takes a lot of penalties gets a reputation and a shorter leash, and he still continues to outpace them all. Moreover, even if the refs do apply a different set of rules to him, he needs to adapt to that; the pain the team feels as he goes to the box is not mitigated by self-righteous grumbling that the penalty was undeserved.
Zac Rinaldo is never going to be a star in the NHL, and nobody really pretends otherwise. But he could still have a fine career as a defensive plug if he can tighten up the penalties, and replacing fighting majors with slashing minors is not forward progress in that regard.