A breakdown of Zac Rinaldo's recently-improved effectiveness

People think I'm less crazy than I used to be. Let's celebrate! - Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

We don't quite know if Zac Rinaldo is one of the 12 best forwards on this team, but we do know that his discipline in his last 10 games has been much-improved.

Here at Broad Street Hockey, there's been a lot of virtual ink spilled over Zac Rinaldo and his play since the beginning of last season, when he made the team out of training camp. And most of it's had a pretty consistent message: If Rinaldo wants to stick around as a contributing player on this team, he needs to calm down a bit a lot.

And though I wrote none of those articles, I'd agree completely. He doesn't bring much in the way of offense or puck possession, and he commits a ridiculous amount of penalties while not drawing nearly enough to justify them. His gaudy hits and fight totals are nice, but by themselves those don't win you any games, and they certainly don't outweigh the Flyers' numerous trips to the PK that have been fairly commonplace thanks to his antics. So as you could guess, the two games this season where Tye McGinn (a player who's been scoring goals and contributing in puck possession, while also hitting and fighting a lot of people) was sent to the press box while Rinaldo was on the ice made me want to throw my computer out a window.

On February 11, during a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rinaldo managed to take four separate penalties -- a hold of Mark Fraser, an interference on Matt Frattin, and a 2-and-10 holding and misconduct with Dion Phaneuf (while he did manage to draw Phaneuf into a 2-and-10 as well, it was in the waning minutes of a blowout loss). That's the kind of game that annoys most of us, and for good reason -- when a guy puts one shot on net and puts up 16 penalty minutes, he could have 20 hits and you still couldn't make the case that he's been helping your team.

Since that game, Rinaldo seems to have calmed down a bit, and he's been receiving a lot of praise from various reporters and fans who have noticed what he's done. In particular, Anthony SanFilippo has been fierce in his defense of Rinaldo, and he relayed a couple of quotes from Zac the other day:

Those words and actions are certainly encouraging, coming from a guy who as recently as last April was saying he wanted to be the league's leader in PIM "in the worst way". He also received a lot of praise for drawing Daniel Alfredsson -- he of one career major penalty before Saturday -- into an incredibly dumb five-minute crosscheck that got him ejected late in a one-goal game.

So maybe there's something to all of this. Naturally, though, because we've been skeptical of trust-me-he's-changed claims about Rinaldo in the past, I took a look at what he's done lately.

Saturday's win over Ottawa marked the 10th game since that loss to Toronto. And there's no way around it: In those 10 games, Zac Rinaldo has, discipline-wise, been a massive positive for the Flyers.

He's had one fight in that timespan -- Saturday's tussle with Kaspars Daugavins. Excluding that, Rinaldo has taken eight penalty minutes, which is still a healthy amount for only 10 games. But there's the other side of that: In that time, he's been responsible for 21 penalty minutes for the other team's players.

Some more details:

* He's had only one non-coincidental penalty, meaning only once was Rinaldo sent to the box without the other team also sending someone to the box as well. That was an interference penalty on P.K. Subban in the 4-1 loss to Montreal, which did not result in a goal against.

* He's also drawn seven non-coincidental minor penalties in that time. Sadly, none of the ensuing power plays have led to a goal for the Flyers, but that's hardly Rinaldo's fault. Get a team on the PP seven times and typically they're going to score on one or two of them.

* There have also been three other penalties where both Rinaldo and someone from the other team headed to the box. There was Saturday's aforementioned incitent, in which he got a two-minute roughing penalty in exchange for a five-minute crosscheck by Alfredsson. Last Wednesday against the Caps, he and Alex Ovechkin headed off the ice for roughing at the same time in the game's closing seconds (though, to be fair, according to the box score Rinaldo did not draw the penalty; Ruslan Fedotenko did). And in the 6-5 win against the Penguins, Kris Letang and Rinaldo both went off the ice for slashing in the first period. That's three coincidental penalties, all taking a player much better and more skilled than Rinaldo off the ice. Those are tradeoffs we'll take every time, and the ones he's looking for.

In table form:

Game PIM taken PIM drawn Players Drawn (minutes)
Ottawa 2 7 Zack Smith (2), Daniel Alfredsson (5)
Washington 2* 0 Alex Ovechkin* (2)
Toronto 0 2 Mike Brown (2)
Winnipeg 0 0
Florida 0 0
at Pittsburgh 2 8 Deryk Engelland (2), Kris Letang (2), Tanner Glass (4)
at NY Islanders 0 0
at Montreal 2 0
at New Jersey 0 0
at Winnipeg 0 4 Anthony Peluso (4)
TOTAL 8 21

* Rinaldo did not draw the penalty against Alex Ovechkin, but he and Ovechkin went off the ice at the same time, so it should be noted that this was not simply a non-coincidental penalty.

Now, before we start praising Rinaldo as an elite pest/agitator who's earned his spot in the lineup for good, there are a few caveats here.

* These 10 games have been awesome, but they're also just that: 10 games. The other 80 or so contests in his Flyers career suggest that it could just be an outlier.

* I haven't done any sort of look at his possession metrics in that timeframe, so I have no idea if those are improved lately as well. And as they currently stand, they aren't good.

* He's only scored two points all season (both goals, one of which was into an empty net).

* As you can see in that link in the above bullet, his total penalties drawn to penalties taken balance this season, while improved from what it was last season, is still in the red. Not to mention the fact that forwards, in general, draw more penalties than they take, so it'd take a lot more stretches like this one for him to even be average in his penalties taken/drawn spread.

All of which is to say: If everyone in the forward group is healthy, I'm still not convinced that I'd want him out on the ice ahead of, say, Tye McGinn. Or even Eric Wellwood, who, as you know, we're big fans of here. Or maybe even Mike Knuble, who's found himself as the odd man out thanks to Simon Gagne's return. Because all of those guys score points or play defense or do something other than piss people off a lot.

But here's the thing: At this point, I know I'd want Rinaldo in the lineup over Harry Zolnierczyk, who's quickly growing the same reputation that Rinaldo has had for a while. And I say that because lately Rinaldo has been toning down the non-coincidental penalties against, drawing penalties from the other team's players at a higher rate, and taking some really good players off the ice with him.

That he's managed to take that step ahead is, no doubt, progress, and if he consistently keep doing what he's been doing lately, he can start justifying Peter Laviolette's propensity to play him over the team's other fourth-line forward options. And who knows -- the guy's only 22, so maybe, just maybe, there's still some time for him to develop some other skill that will allow him to really make his name in the NHL as more than just an agitator.

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