I find myself strangely reluctant to write a full-blown article about Zack Stortini. I'm a fan of "Zorg" and am not shy about commenting elsewhere, frequently in his defence, but here on C&B he has mostly flown under the radar, as good fourth-liners should.
Make no mistake, though, Stortini is rounding into a Good fourth-liner. Indeed, in Edmonton he virtually defines the fourth line; time and again you hear Kevin Quinn saying "Now the fourth line is out there with Zack Stortini and ... and ..." and the two other guys could be pretty much anybody but Ales Hemsky. The big man has played with 4 different pairs of linemates (as in 8 different guys) in the last three weeks alone, but has remained a fourth-liner throughout. The fourth-liner.
One thing one wants from fourth-liners is low-event hockey. You hope to break even and then some when playing the other teams scrubs under what Dennis calls the "gentleman's agreement" between coaches. At the same time, you know there will be times when the group is caught out there on a long shift or on the road against a line-matching coach or especially after an icing where a mismatch is apt to occur and it's never going to be in your favour. So break-even is a valuable skill for a scrub.
In 180 GP as an Edmonton Oiler Zack Stortini stands at -1 on the traditional plus/minus scale. After a rough first term (29 GP, -7 during the baptism-by-fire stretch drive in '06-07), he posted +3 in '07-08, -3 in '08-09, and now an impressive +6 in an elevated role under Pat Quinn. The Irishman still uses Zack on the fourth line, but every single game, and for more minutes; at this rate he'll pass last year's 379 minutes by New Year's. Moreover, of late he's been doing that playing centre, which I never would have expected; since being separated from Cogliano and Moreau, Stortini has played between O'Marra and McDonald (2 games), Stone and Nilsson (5 games) and now O'Sullivan and Jacques (1 game). In those 8 games playing a new position with call-ups, returnees, and demotees, he has posted an impressive +6/-0 in actual Goals scored while he is on the ice. The experiment has been a surprising success, and both Stortini and Quinn deserve a little credit for their versatility.
One reason that many people continue to express doubts about this guy is that the team gets outshot and outchanced while he's out there, which as I pointed out above is a fact of life for fourth-lines generally. QualComp is often/usually low, but QualTeam is almost always so. When a mismatch occurs it's usually the whole line that's in deep.
Yet somehow Zack Stortini's line doesn't get outscored. He always seems to have the percentages rolling his way. It may seem unsustainable to the math purists, but 180 GP is a pretty decent amount of sustain if you ask me.
The percentages pertain to both ends of the rink of course. In Stortini's case the team shooting percentage when he is on the ice has been 10% or better in each of the last three seasons and I'm beginning to think this is no fluke. Zack himself maintains a 13.1% Sh% over his career. It seems that while his group generates relatively few shots and chances, the ones they do get tend to be good ones. In my observation, chaos-type plays with Zorg and one or two other guys all crashing around within 10 or 15 feet of the net, the puck often coming out from the end wall into the scrum in front where 30-odd foot of grunts (counting both teams) are apt to make for hairy times for the opposing goalie. The observed "better actual results than underliers" is consistent with this hypothesis.
At the defensive end Stortini's "luck" has been a bit of a yoyo. According to the stats compiled by the estimable Gabe Desjardins at Behind the Net, in 2007-08 Stortini had the best record among full-season Oilers in GA/60 (his late-season linemate Curtis Glencross compiled the majority of his stats while in Columbus); in 2008-09 he had the second-worst such record ; now in 2009-10 he is back leading the club in this important category. Some of it most certainly is luck; in 2008-09 for example Stortini got burned three times for minuses on bad line changes where he didn't even have a chance to get involved in the play, and such events really kill your percentages when you play six hours all season. But saves from the goalie are always going to play a big role, and will be exaggerated in small sample sizes to the point that we are likely just seeing outlying examples of random distribution.
Back to the seen-him-good side, I haven't seen his line bleeding ten-bell chances for the most part, and part of the reason is some strong positioning and defensive play by Zack himself. Moreover, he does this in a laudably law-abiding manner -- in 2008-09 he astonishingly took zero obstruction penalties of any type, zero slashing penalties, and zero instigating penalties for that matter. Now those are small-number statistics.
That said, there's no doubt that a Sv% ON of .969 is not going to sustain indefinitely. Maybe the guy really is just rolling 7s for an uncommonly long time and it's all about to come crashing down.
In the meantime, though, Stortini isn't hurting the Oilers on the scoreboard, and is delivering some size and some sauce to the mix on a nightly basis. He's low-event almost everywhere except fights, hits, and (aggressive :) PiM, and unrecorded attributes like consistency, work ethic, leadership, and acceptance of his role. Moreover, he delivers all this on a low-event salary: cap hit of just $700 K through 2011. All in all a pretty valuable guy to have around, and a fun guy to root for.
You can watch Zach Stortini at EA sports here:
Courtesy of NHL.com