If the NHL decides to suspend Zac Rinaldo for his hit on Sean Couturier Wednesday night, it will be because the hit was deemed a suspendable offense, not because of the reputation of the player who was involved.
The easy and convenient thing to do with a guy like Zac Rinaldo when he gets ejected for a questionable hit is to that assume that since he’s a goon – and let’s not kid ourselves on that description – he’s guilty of a transgression (again) and will have the book tossed at him by the NHL.
Rinaldo kind of makes it easy. He’s been suspended for a total of 14 games over his career, the most recent coming just 10 months ago when he picked up an eight-game sentence for hunting down Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang and applying a predatorial hit when Letang was completely vulnerable. And as a vocal proponent of guys of Rinaldo’s ilk being removed from the game as soon as possible, your trusty correspondent has no problem seeing those kinds of guys pay dearly for the carnage they inflict.
But Rinaldo’s hit at the 20-minute mark of the first period of Wednesday night’s game on former teammate Sean Couturier, is one of those ones where nobody should rush to judgment simply because of the player involved. The one thing we do know is that there will either be no suspension for Rinaldo’s hit on Couturier or it will be a very, very long one. There will be no in between.
But if you look closely at the hit from a number of angles, you realize what a difficult decision this will be for the Department of Player Safety. Take Rinaldo out of the equation for a moment. If this were any other player, would this hit be called for a major penalty and automatic ejection?
Rinaldo was called for charging, which is described in the NHL rulebook as, “the actions of a player who, as the result of distance travelled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner.” There was not a terribly long distance travelled, Rinaldo glided into the hit and the principal point of contact appears to be Couturier’s chest, with his head jerking back violently as a result of the hit. From these eyes, it appears as though there’s nothing malicious about the hit. You could argue it was a little late, but not egregiously.
And does the hit pass muster when it comes to Rule 48.1? Well, it depends on the point of contact. Rinaldo does not get his elbow up, does not leave his feet and does not appear to target Couturier’s head. In fact, you could argue that Rinaldo doesn’t even come in contact with Couturier’s head and part of the reason why his head jerked back so much is that Adam McQuaid was leaning into him from behind. If McQuaid isn’t there to provide a point of impact, perhaps Couturier simply falls to the ice and gets up to return to play.
The thing you have to realize here is that Rinaldo’s status as a repeat offender and his well-earned reputation as a predator will not come into play into the decision of whether or not he should be suspended for his hit on Couturier. Nor is the fact that Couturier was injured on the play. And that’s as it should be. In a court of law, the record of the accused is not admissible evidence in determining guilt. Where his past will be considered – and come back to haunt him – is if the act is determined to be a suspendable offense.
From these eyes, this hit does not fall into that category and anyone who knows my well-documented feelings on players of Rinaldo’s ilk would know how much it pains yours truly to write those words. But even goons can be involved in plays that simply go sideways and that might be the case here.
In any event, this will be a vexing one for the player safety group. And it would be unwise to assume that a long suspension is definitely forthcoming.