‘Kill or be killed’: Rinaldo fighting for his NHL career with Flames

Zac-Rinaldo

Vancouver Canucks' Ethan Keppen, centre, gets caught between Calgary Flames' Mark Giordano, left, and Zac Rinaldo during second period pre-season NHL hockey action in Calgary, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh / CP)

CALGARY – The coach likes his speed.

The players like his energy.

The league likes suspending him.

Everyone is familiar with Calgary Flames hopeful Zac Rinaldo, who finds himself in the unfamiliar position of being one of six PTOs in camp.

Brought in to fight for his NHL career, not to mention his teammates, the 29-year-old native of Mississauga, Ont., has impressed early with a weapon few think of when they recall the man suspended five times.

“Rinaldo can fly – I didn’t know he was this fast,” said coach Bill Peters, who emphasized his team’s desire to get quicker ahead of Monday’s 3-2 split-squad exhibition overtime loss at the Saddledome against the Vancouver Canucks’ youngsters.

“I’ve been impressed with his work ethic and his ability to forecheck. He understands how to track.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Rinaldo also understands he’ll need to focus on his main weakness, which is crossing the line.

“My mentality is kill or be killed – always has been,” said Rinaldo, who played 23 games last season for the Nashville Predators, his fourth stop in an eight-year NHL career.

“You don’t want to see me ramped up, I’m telling you right now. If I do get ramped up and I do go over the edge … I’ve learned the hard way. You guys have seen that. I’ve been suspended here and suspended there and fines here. As long as I’m level headed I’m myself.”

It’s that sort of loose wire the Flames have been missing since Brian McGrattan was demoted more than four years ago, keeping the opposition honest when contemplating a slash to the wrist of Johnny Gaudreau.

However, with Milan Lucic in town to keep the order, there’s risk involved in signing a five-foot-10, 193-pound pepper pot famous for being suspended by two leagues simultaneously.

After all, his next trip to Toronto for a hearing would likely net him at least eight or ten games – an absence the cap-strapped Flames could ill-afford.

• In 2017 he earned a six-game sit-down for a sucker punch on Samuel Girard.

• In 2016 he was handed five games for a check to the head of Cedric Paquette

• In 2015 he sat eight games for charging Kris Letang.

“I hated getting suspended – it’s not cool,” scoffed the affable winger.

“I lose money and I don’t play hockey at the same time. It sucks. I don’t regret anything I did – I don’t at all. It comes with the game – it’s part of the territory. It’s how you overcome it and how you do learn from it then you’re going the right way.

“If you don’t learn from it and those bad habits are still there I’m probably out of the league. I know what I need to do.”

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He figures his task here is to prove he’s a good teammate, a positive influence in the room and an energizer on the ice. So far, so good for a guy who has stood out with Tobias Rieder in a group of four PTO forwards that includes Devante Smith-Pelly and Alexandre Grenier.

“I’m leaving everything here on the ice, so I don’t go home second-guessing my work ethic or what I should have done better here or there,” he said.

Does he find the do-or-die nature of his tryout nerve-wracking?

“No, I live for this,” smiled the former sixth-round pick.

“I thrive in these uncomfortable scenarios. I like where I am right now. The kill or be killed mentality is what I have lived by my whole life. Being drafted not in the top rounds and fighting my way through this and that. Because I don’t have a contract it’s a little more amplified.”

On Monday, Rinaldo’s speed was evident while playing alongside Glenn Gawdin and Smith-Pelly, forming the game’s most menacing trio. Two of his game-high six hits were notable, including a solid unloading on Wacey Hamilton and another biggie that stunned Alex Biega.

“It’s nice to hear, but it kind of goes in one ear and out the other because if I get too comfortable in these situations I get out of my character and my role as a player,” said the owner of 15 goals and 719 penalty minutes in 351 NHL games when told of the coach’s praise for his speed.

“I’ve never told myself I’m here to fight, but if I hit someone or there’s an argument on the ice and someone doesn’t like my teammate, or vice versa, that’s part of the game and you fight. You’re allowed to do that.

“I think the mentality of guys going out there just to fight has calmed down a lot, but fighting is part of the game and always will be, I hope. So, ya, I do that.”

Fact is, the Flames may not be able to sign anyone to anything other than a two-way deal with the AHL’s Stockton Heat in mind, thanks to their salary cap issues. The second-biggest hurdle for Rinaldo may just be overcoming his reputation.

“I didn’t go out and say, ‘I want a reputation of being so and so,’ it just happened,” he shrugged.

“I take it, but I don’t care what people think of me as long as I’m true to myself.”

OTHER STUFF: Johnny Gaudreau and Michael Frolik scored for the Flames only to see the Canucks score three on Cam Talbot, including an overtime winner from former Hitmen star Jake Virtanen (his second of the game) … Flames registered 14 shots before the Canucks got their first against David Rittich with 7:31 left in the first. Rittich left 33 minutes into the game with a shutout on four (yep) shots. Cam Talbot mopped up, stopping six of the nine shots he faced … Flames outshot the Canucks 38-13 … First “Looch” bellow from the crowd came at the 9-minute mark of the game … Andrew Mangiapane, who signed a one-year, two-way deal worth $715,000 Sunday, did his physical Monday, will skate alone Wednesday (the team is off) and will join the lads for practice Wednesday … At age 35 Mark Giordano topped all Flames in fitness testing results.

FLAMES FORWARD LINES

Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm

Bennett, Backlund, Frolik

Lucic, Ryan, Pelletier

Smith-Pelly, Gawdin, Rinaldo

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