Zac Rinaldo is only 24, but he’s already been suspended twice and is bound for suspension No. 3 after his boarding of Penguins defenseman Kris Letang Tuesday. But, like it or not, don’t expect the book to be thrown at him.
Like recently-suspended Hawks winger Daniel Carcillo, Flyers winger Zac Rinaldo has made an NHL career out of playing “on the edge” – and implicit in that phrase has long been the understanding he occasionally goes over that edge. So when he once again crossed the line Tuesday by drilling Penguins defenseman Kris Letang into the boards from behind, not a single brow league-wide was raised in surprise:
This is what players like Rinaldo do, and if you allow them back on the ice for enough shifts, this is what they’re going to do again. The 24-year-old has been fined twice and suspended twice already in his career, including a four-game ban last April for this clearly reckless hit on Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel:
Letang was knocked out of the game thanks to Rinaldo’s hit, which earned him a five-minute boarding penalty and game misconduct. But in speaking to reporters, Rinaldo didn’t sound like someone who was contrite in any way, shape or form:
Zac Rinaldo: “I changed the whole game, man. Who knows what woulda happened if I didn't do what I did?”
— Dave Isaac (@davegisaac) January 21, 2015
He sure did change the game, but not for the better. Safe to say the previous punishments the NHL’s Department of Player Safety have applied to Rinaldo haven’t done anything to change his predatory instincts. A double-digit-game suspension would be a start in sending home a real message to him, but because neither the league nor the NHLPA have shown the initiative or desire to really clamp down on players who do what he does, you always should guess on the conservative side when it comes to how many games he’ll actually get.
But will be suspended this time? Of course. With that hit, and that quote, Rinaldo is practically begging for an unpaid holiday to come his way courtesy of chief disciplinarian Stephane Quintal. However, unless that suspension is far more than the four games he got in April, it should prepare us for the eventuality of further incidents involving Rinaldo and unsuspecting victims who unlike him exist to play the game rather than to stop others from playing it.
If the league really wanted the line-crossers and edge-walkers gone, they’d be gone by the time you finish this column. But the Rinaldos, the Carcillos, the Matt Cookes and the Patrick Kaletas of the hockey world have managed to stay employed not out of sheer luck, and certainly not because they’re a deterrent toward the opposition doing something underhanded (indeed, Pittsburgh’s Steve Downie, another member of the line-crosser’s club, happened to be on the ice when Rinaldo charged at Letang). They’re still here because nobody at the highest levels of the game has decided enough was enough with them. To the contrary: they’ve been conditioned and rewarded for being so vicious and merciless once they jump over the boards. That institutional permissiveness is far more in need of change than the case of any individual player.
The NHL establishment has more or less seen the light when it comes to getting rid of the one-dimensional enforcer, and weeding out the repeat-offender rats of the game should be a high priority for league brass. The days of a slap-on-the-wrist two-or-three-game suspension ought to be long gone, and if Rinaldo or any of his ilk can’t rehabilitate their style of play, they ought to be long gone as well.