Zach Stortini seems like a likable enough guy. I’ve no doubt that his teammates like him and he’s a positive guy to have around the team. However, in all of Craig MacTavish’ time as a coach, there isn’t a single player who I’ve had a harder time understanding why he’s dressing than Stortini. He’s like the anti-Jan Hejda, a guy whose struggles to get into the lineup last year mystified me.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, Stortini is from the Kelly Buchberger class of fighters – his best attribute is his ability to get punched in the face repeatedly without doing something socially awkward like bleeding all over the other guy (Full disclosure: Stortini would rip me apart. Nobody’s paying me to protect guys in whom tens of millions of dollars are invested though). Bucky used to get the crap kicked out of him all of the time in the late 1990′s when the Oilers didn’t really have an enforcer and someone had to stand up for Doug Weight and Ryan Smyth. Bucky was at least a serviceable lower end guy though – Stortini just can’t play hockey. He’s played 7 games this year, spending a total of 40:25 on the ice (all at ES, unsurprisingly).
When he is on the ice, the Oilers get absolutely destroyed – I checked a few games back and the Oilers had all of three shots when he was on the ice, with twenty against. If you make the (safe) assumptions that a) MacT isn’t playing him against anyone good and b) he isn’t putting him on the ice in unfavourable situations (as of a few days ago, Stortini had 30 faceoffs in the neutral or offensive zones as opposed to 11 in his own end). He’s just not a very good hockey player at this point in his career.
Last night’s hit on Ales Hemsky by Robyn Regehr cried out for an act of retribution from the Oilers. According to Vic Ferrari’s Time on Ice site, Stortini didn’t see a shift after the first period. Whether it was fighting Regehr or mugging one of the Flames soft talents, there has to be some sort of response to Regehr’s shot at Hemsky. I’m willing to let MacTavish and Stortini off the hook a little bit for not responding immediately to the Hemsky hit given the score and the Oilers desperate need for a win but it’s not like Flames defencemen taking cheap shots at Hemsky is a particularly new phenomenon – this has been going on since at least the first game of last season, as Andy noted in his piece after the 2006-07 season opener at Rexall. For the life of me, I can’t remember anybody doing anything about the shots at Hemsky all year long last year. In fairness to Stortini, I remember him trying to get it going with Dion Phaneuf, who proceeded to hide behind a linesman and (if I’m remembering this correctly) weep softly.
If Stortini can’t or won’t do something about a guy like Hemsky getting hammered, what exactly is the point of his occupying a roster spot on the Oilers? This is more on the Oilers than him, I think – it’s not like serviceable fighters are tough to find. If he’s a terrible fighter and a terrible hockey player, I can’t figure out why he’s got a spot. Effectively, the Oilers are playing with 11 forwards, which doesn’t seem to make a hell of a lot of sense for a team that doesn’t exactly have a bench full of guys who the coach trusts. Jeff Friesen would probably take the league minimum at this point – is he not a better option than a guy who deters nothing and can’t play hockey to boot?
The Battle of Alberta next Saturday is going to be interesting to watch. There aren’t a lot of games this week, so I assume that the local media will have lots of space and time to beat the drums for some vindication for Hemsky. Hopefully Stortini reads the papers and listens to the talk shows – for him to be worth a spot on the team, he needs to find a way to create a deterrent effect. If Regehr and Phaneuf don’t want to fight, if Owen Nolan doesn’t want to fight unless he catches Stortini at the end of a shift, then he needs to ask someone like Alex Tanguay and not take no for an answer, or he needs to take a big run at Tanguay.
I’m not really an advocate of this sort of hockey, but given that the league doesn’t seem to have any interest in punishing this sort of conduct, I don’t know what else a team can do about it to try and protect their stars. The NHL has essentially thrown up its hands and abdicated any responsibility for making sure that there’s some protection when a player is vulnerable. To be worth his spot in the lineup, Stortini has to find a way to provide some sort of deterrence, whether doing so is in keeping with the Laraque Rules or not. The Oilers are hard enough to watch these days and Hemsky is one of the few bright spots. This can’t continue.