GLENS FALLS -- Zac Rinaldo's final two games at the Civic Center last season lasted a combined 12 minutes and 14 seconds. That's how long it took him to be thrown off the ice twice and suspended for the season's final three games.
After a rookie year when his suspensions outnumbered his goals and he averaged more than five penalty minutes a game, his future as a productive American Hockey League player seemed a fair question, let alone the NHL.
Wednesday, the new - and he says, improved - Rinaldo leaned on his stick outside the Phantoms' locker room after his first practice with the team and proclaimed himself a changed man:
"I want to score. I want to shoot. I want to be the total package," Rinaldo said.
Don't laugh so quickly.
Ever since making a surprise NHL debut for the Flyers in last spring's playoffs, Rinaldo's star has been ascending in the organization. The 20-year-old stood out in the preseason, even scoring on a nifty breakaway against Toronto.
With enforcer Jody Shelley suspended for the season's first five games, Rinaldo made the Flyers' roster out of camp. He picked up his first NHL point on Tuesday.
"I've always had that type of skill, or however you want to call it, inside of me, but I never really had a chance to bring it out," Rinaldo said. "They gave me a chance and I took it and ran with it."
Before we start nominating him for the Lady Byng, let's be clear: Rinaldo hasn't gone soft. His mauling of some poor Rangers player in a preseason game is as brutal a fight as you'll see.
But with a leaner physique that's given him an extra quickness and a year of discretion drilled in his head, the hits that were a step late last season are finding their mark with brutal efficiency. Last Saturday, Rinaldo intercepted Los Angeles Kings' star Drew Doughty as he crossed the offensive zone with a perfectly timed and placed shoulder to the chest that knocked him from the game.
Doughty hasn't played since, and the hit made highlight reels all over the league.
"The game's changed a little bit and I have to adapt to it. I want to keep my physical play up but do it more - according to the NHL - ‘smarter,' " Rinaldo said. "I'm trying to show people that the game is still physical and how it should be played: tough, hard-nosed hockey but clean."
Last year, he blurred the line between hard-nosed and over the top. He finished with 331 penalty minutes in 60 games, with just nine points.
Some of the bluster, he says now, was calculated.
"I always like to make a first impression. I kind of set a mark for myself: no one can take advantage of me. I kind of like to establish myself the first year," Rinaldo said.
His reputation as the league's bad boy firmly set, now it's about using it for something other than drawing a wary eye from referees. Rinaldo's past antics have at times distracted from the fact he has above-average hands and is deceptively quick on his feet at 5-foot-11, 169 pounds.
"He's created some room for himself, a circle around himself where other players know he plays a certain way," Phantoms coach Joe Paterson said. "Now he has to use that circle to have extra seconds to be on the puck and create scoring opportunities and hang on to the puck down low and do things that are more skilled."
The more he stays out of the box at the wrong times, the greater role Paterson can give him. Rinaldo may even develop into a penalty killer - imagine the thought - if the year goes well.
Of course, if it goes really well, Rinaldo may not remain here long. But for now, he's not complaining about a fresh start with the Phantoms.
"I go out there and play every game, every shift like it's my last," Rinaldo said. "This is my team right now and I'm going to put all my effort into making this team a better team and making myself a better hockey player."