Today we take a look at one of the most controversial enforcers in the NHL: Zac Rinaldo. Known for cheap shots landing him fines and suspensions, the former Philadelphia Flyer was re-united with now-Predators head coach Peter Laviolette this last season. Unfortunately for Rinaldo, he was sidelined the second half of the season with an upper-body injury and only played 23 games for the Predators. With the Predators not opting to bring him back for this upcoming season, Rinaldo signed a PTO with the Calgary Flames.
Overall, in his short time with the Predators, how well did Zac Rinaldo fit into the team as an enforcer and, in that role, how did he fare?
Unlike my other player reviews where I evaluated players for their development, decision making, footwork, positioning, and offense, Zac Rinaldo’s role on the Predators was never in line with those criteria. Grading him against those players with different roles than him would be intrinsically unfair. With all due respect to Rinaldo, if we judged him by the same standards that we judged Roman Josi, Rinaldo is receiving a failing grade pretty much any way you slice it.
Instead, we should evaluate Zac Rinaldo’s performance this season via the lens of what he really is: an enforcer. Love the role or hate it, that is exactly what Rinaldo is and why he was brought onto the Predators. There can be debate over wheither or not enforcers have a place in hockey, but Rinaldo is one and general manager David Poile went out and acquired someone to make opponents think twice before laying big hits.
Therefore, we will evaluate three key areas of an enforcer’s worth: fighting, deterrence, and excess penalization.
Zac Rinaldo was only a participant in two fights this season, both occuring in the first twenty games of the season. On October 15th he fought former Predator Matt Hendricks of the Minnesota Wild, although it was more of a fierce hug-fest than a fight.
Moreover, it looks like Hendricks gets the upper hand in the very end, so I give the winning edge to the Wild in this fight.
On November 12, Rinaldo got his first taste of the fierce Nashville-Anaheim rivalry. Fueled from how emotional those games are for the players, Rinaldo got a taste of the action himself.
Kevin Fiala is caught in a tough spot, receiving a “hospital pass” as the Predators try and break out of their own zone. Sure enough, the Ducks lay a big hit on Fiala, a sitting duck at that point. However, the hit is clean and is not high on Fiala; he just gets his clock legally cleaned. However, the Predators bench explodes and Rinaldo jumps over the boards to pick a fight. It’s a close brawl at center ice, but Rinaldo loses his footing towards the end again and Josh Manson is able to wrestle Rinaldo to the ice.
Additionally, Rinaldo was lucky not to get slapped with the instigator minor penalty, and accompanying ten-minute misconduct, in this situation. Jumping off of the bench the way he did, the officials absolutely needed to give him the extra two minutes. Nonetheless, the Predators caught a break, but it demonstrates the recklessness Rinaldo can bring to a team. His hot head tends to prevail over wisdom.
If Rinaldo is going to have value in being an enforcer, he needs to definitively win fights. Finishing the season with two fights, neither definitively won, is not going to intimidate opponents the way that Rich Clune did.
Admittedly, this category is a little challenging to quantify. The Predators had their fair share of injury issues this season and, while some naysayers may disagree, their failures in the playoffs can easily be chalked up to only having a healthy roster for basically ten of 82 games this season. The role of an enforcer is to deter opponents from taking cheap shots at teammates and injuring them. Therefore, how effective was Rinaldo at preventing injuries?
The short answer is, he was not. The long answer is that enforcers are only effective at deterring opponents when they are on the ice. The era of the fourth line enforcer is coming to a close because of this fact. With more speed in the game than ever before, teams cannot afford to roll a fourth line of goons against an opponent’s top line. They will simply get smoked time and time again.
Additionally, teams are smart and evolved enough to take advantage of a fourth-line enforcer placed on a top-two line to protect another player. Teams will simply attack that weakness and dominate puck possession. Long gone are the days of Gretzky needing a goon on his wing to soak up ice; teams are skilled enough that those tactics do not work.
Instead, as my co-host Jack at Two For Podcasting and I have mentioned, we’re seeing an evolution of the enforcer role. While the Rinaldos and Clunes are on their way out, the Tom Wilsons and Josh Andersons are on their way in. Having a big-bodied power forward on a top-two line is the new way that teams are protecting their star players. While Tom Wilson certainly has his issues taking things too far, he is not just some pigeon that was put on Alexander Ovechkin’s line to eat the trash left for him in an opponent’s crease. He’s a darn good hockey player.
Same goes for Josh Anderson and his teammate Pierre-Luc Dubois in Columbus. The two big-bodied power forwards were able to lay waste in corners for the Blue Jackets last season, opening ice up for Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. Nonetheless, Anderson and Dubois also provide strong offensive play.
This is the evolution of the enforcer role. The modern enforcer is not a fourth line Rinaldo that jumps over the bench occasionally and only plays seven minutes a night. The modern enforcer is a power forward that opens ice not only through heavy hitting, but by being an offensive threat themselves. The Predators actually lack such a body, which gives me concern. Simply put, Zac Rinaldo is a player made for a dying era of hockey and it is of no surprise that he is no longer a Predator.
The best enforcers are able to do their jobs while keeping their calm. Outside of their penalties for fighting, they should not be taking minor infractions. Rarely on the ice as is, the last thing any coach wants from an enforcer is them putting the team shorthanded for a trip or delay of game.
Surprisingly, for an enforcer, Zac Rinaldo actually does a phenomenal job of not taking excessive penalties. His earlier seasons in his career and suspension history paints one picture, but in 23 games he only accrued 20 penalty minutes for the Predators. In those 20 penalty minutes, half of them came from the two aforementioned fights. Additionally, after October, Rinaldo did not take a minor penalty the rest of the season.
Final Grade: D+
After much thought, a D+ is the appropriate grade for Zac Rinaldo. While I think his body of work is probably more a straight D, it is tough to give a player who was injured for half the season such a low grade.
Zac Rinaldo thankfully did not do anything to earn a suspension this season, as he had in the past. Additionally, in doing some research on him to prepare this article, I was very impressed by his discipline in regards to not taking penalties outside of fighting. He’s far above the enforcer average in that regard, and I respect that he doesn’t hurt his own team in that respect.
However, as an enforcer, he simply was not effective. Fourth line enforcers just aren’t going to get the job done in the modern NHL, and Rinaldo didn’t have the effect that David Poile and head coach Peter Laviolette were hoping for. Accordingly, he receives a D+ for the season.