“Evolution” and “evolved” may not be the first two words that come to mind when one looks at that picture, which highlights a big gap-toothed man with unkempt hair poised to beat on another man with his fist, but despite that seeming incongruity, evolution is what we saw when Zack Stortini fought in 2009-10.
Ever since Stortini entered the league, we’ve seen a lot of two things from him. We’ve seen him willing to drop the gloves with anyone – regardless of opponent, Stortini’s a willing dance partner. He led the league in major penalties in 2008-09, because of that willingness. The other thing we’ve seen a lot of is Stortini moving in close and grappling when facing off against superior opponents, the action that earned him the nickname “Huggy Bear.”
At the end of 2008-2009, however, I looked at Stortini’s record as a fighter and I saw substantial improvement: after winning four of his first 47 fights, he went 5-2-1 to close out the season (wins and losses determined by voting at hockeyfights.com) while fighting against guys like Ivanans, Parros and Scott. I thought this was a positive indicator for 2009-10; Stortini’s still a young player and it’s certainly conceivable that we would see improvement.
This chart shows us Stortini’s win/loss record by season over his NHL career:
A 0.500 season! More wins than draws!
I tend to think this is a sustainable trend, and that we will see Stortini eventually hang in around the 0.500 mark while still fighting pretty much anyone. The reason I think that is a belief that fighting ability sees the same general development path as other NHL skills: a player struggles early, then improves until he hits the age of 25 or so, and then sticks around that mark over the next few years (his prime) before declining due to age. Because Stortini has some ability outside of fighting, he made his NHL debut younger than most, at age 21. He’s at the age now where we can expect his development in all areas to start levelling off (it may not, but for most players it does) but even if it does he has value: a fourth-line guy who can play, and a high-end middleweight who can fight with anyone.
Of course, it also remains to be seen if Stortini’s a player the Oilers are interested in long-term. I say that despite the fact that I’ve done a 180° on Stortini, a player I rather disliked in 2006-07 but have since come to respect for his tenacity and his willingness to do whatever it takes to stay in the league. My question though is this: if Stortini never becomes a true heavyweight, and the Oilers feel they need one, can Stortini’s presence on the roster be justified? Every time Stortini’s had success as a hockey player, he’s been on a line with other talent: either Brodziak and Glencross or Nilsson and Stone. In both cases, Stortini was able to play a defined role that fit his skillset. On the other hand, I’d say Stortini’s worst performances came while playing on a line with Steve MacIntyre; Stortini simply hasn’t displayed the skill to adapt to a role where more of the puck work falls to him. I have my doubts he will, and while MacIntyre’s a highly effective fighter he isn’t much help either carrying or obtaining the puck.
The solution would either seem to be to rotate Stortini in and out of the lineup with the designated heavyweight, with Stortini coming in for teams regarded as less physically challenging or without a true heavyweight enforcer, or to send him away and let the designated heavyweight take his spot on the fourth line.
Honestly, I’m not sure what the solution is; despite Stortini’s improvement as a fighter I’ve become more sceptical of his role on the team if a heavyweight is also on the roster.