Where you stand on Zack Stortini says a lot about how you evaluate young players.
At the tender age of twenty-four (until September, anyway: this will be Zack's last appearance on the Top 25 Under 25), Stortini is a fairly good fourth liner. No special teams ability, but he can play against another team's fourth line with a collection of absolute scrubs beside him and get results. He's shown some modest ability against third-line opposition. And whatever value a scrapper who'll stick up for his teammates is to a team, Stortini can provide. He's big, strong, sturdy, affable, and intelligent. He's the sort of player you'd like even if he stank, and he by no means stinks.
That's also all he's probably ever going to be. In 2009-10, he was a slight improvement on the sort of player he was in 2008-09, which in turn was a slight improvement over the type of player he was in 2007-08. There's nothing to get excited about in Zack Stortini. 224 games into his NHL career, we know what we're going to get: five-ish goals a season, absolute reliability so long as he's playing within his limits, and some fights against fellow heavyweights that don't exactly remind one of Dave Brown but are tidy tilts all the same.
Nothing wrong with any of that. But do you mark him low for having the potential of a fourth liner, or mark him high for proving he can reach it - indeed, that he already has? Chris Vande Velde, in an ideal world, will be a third-line centre someday, but he certainly isn't right now and might never become one, so is he above or below Stortini? How about Linus Omark? Maybe he's a miniature Swedish scoring sensation, or maybe he's all smoke and no fire, another Tony Salmelainen? We won't know, and cannot possibly know, until the next season rolls out. So it comes down to where you set your priorities.
Me, I'm taking the devil I know. And that's why Zack Stortini was seventh on my board and thirteenth on our Top 25 Under 25.
You will not, I think, be shocked to see that Bruce and I have ranked Stortini better than any of our fellows. But I am a late convert to the School of Stortini, having this winter ranked Stortini twenty-fourth. My logic then was the same as it is now, only in reverse: players like Stortini are a dime a dozen and what hope is there he'll advance beyond that? Zorg blows an ACL or gets too big for his britches and demands $15 million a year, oh no, I guess we have to sign another player like him for the league minimum, my god will the NHL survive?
But my esteem for Stortini has grown on a few levels. First off, anyone who can go through the meat grinder of the 2009-10 Edmonton Oilers and emerge seventy-seven games later looking better than before has earned my respect. Second, the more I think about it the less convinced I am that players like Stortini are all that common. When I think about fourth-line guys I think about Radek Dvorak, Blair Betts, what I hope Liam Reddox will be in a few years. Perfectly effective, occasionally even outscorers. I from time to time think of guys like Rob Schremp or what Robert Nilsson ought to have been, which is to say even strength sinkholes that make up for it on special teams. When I comb the NHL looking for hard-nose players who hit, fight, and don't take no guff, but who also outplay their adversaries on the hockey end of the equation, and aren't the sorts of star players with gaudy fan clubs and big contracts, the list gets awful short awful fast.
As Scott Howson and Ethan Moreau have shown us, there'll always be a market for a guy with a bit of jam on his crust even if his best days are so far behind him you'd need a jet to get back. Derek Boogaard's accountant could explain at length how toughness and truculence get paid far more than they're actually worth. Stortini's combination of both of these attributes, alongside his non-trivial hockey playing ability, starts to look diabolically good by comparison. Let's hope that nobody ever figures out the true value of these sorts of players.
Obviously, Stortini isn't as valuable as guys like Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner, or even Gilbert Brule. The potential of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson also put them well ahead. But drop down a step, into that second rung of prospects where far more players will hit than miss. For every Shawn Horcoff there are many more Brian Swansons. Zack Stortini is already there, already competing, and already succeeding. Even if he does not get one lick better than he is today, in five years he'll certainly be more than the thirteenth-best player on this list. So that's why I'm ranking Zack so highly. The devil we know, in this case, is actually pretty good.