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The hometown kid

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
There wasn’t much in the way of accompanying fanfare when Mike Santorelli signed a contract with his hometown Canucks earlier this summer (outside of the Santorelli household, at least).

Santorelli had carved out a solid career for himself in the NHL with previous stops in Nashville, Florida, and Winnipeg, but most assumed that the Canucks were bringing him to bolster their talent in Utica and not in Vancouver.

However, through the early stages of the 2013-14 season Santorelli has been one of the most impressive and consistent players under John Tortorella. His versatility, speed, and creativeness have all been welcomed additions to a lineup looking for and needing all three. He is hard on the puck (a Tortorella requirement), and his hockey sense is easily apparent in all situations. The fact that several of his teammates have gotten off to relatively slow starts offensively has made Santorelli’s surprise contributions all the more valuable thus far.

Santorelli has worked hard to make it back to the NHL, and this season has all the makings of a feel-good story for the hometown kid. But can he sustain a few weeks of strong play over 82 games? Let’s take a look.

Hometown Passion

There has been no shortage of hometown (or home province) players to come through Vancouver over the years. From Cliff Ronning to Dan Hamhuis to the Courtnall brothers to Darcy Rota, British Columbians have been able to cheer for one of their own in Canuck colours throughout the years. Kevin Bieksa may not be from British Columbia, but he recognizes the value of having hometown players on the roster:

“It’s a new energy for us. I’ve been here for a while and I like seeing the local guys come in. They grow up cheering for the Canucks, and coming to Canucks games as kids. When they get a chance to play it seems they bring a lot of emotion and a lot of passion to the team.”

For Santorelli, that included a trip to Game 4 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final at the Pacific Coliseum against the New York Rangers.

“My dad and I went. It was at the Pacific Coliseum and Bure was taken down on that partial breakaway…. Everyone was standing. It was wild.”

Most 20-something Canucks fans have similar stories from 1994 (I vividly remember standing on Granville street waving my white towel). The passion was born early. And early on in his tenure as a Canuck, Santorelli has very successfully been able to translate that passion and emotion into offensive production and strong play at both ends of the ice.

The Road to Vancouver

Santorelli’s journey back home was full of ups and downs. The former Langley Hornet and Vernon Viper (poison theme much?) was drafted by the Predators in 2004, and made his NHL debut four years later. He bounced around the Nashville organization quite a bit (spending most of his time in Milwaukee of the AHL) before getting shipped off to Florida. Santorelli had a great season with the Panthers in 2010-11, scoring 20 goals in 82 games. He failed to carry that positive momentum into the next season though – partly due to injury, partly due to inconsistent play, and partly due to the fact that he slid down the depth chart in Florida. Santorelli scored only 11 times in the 94 NHL games he had played in since that season (before 2013-14).

While he is a versatile player and able to play in all situations, he is most effective and impactful when he is creating (and finishing) offensive opportunities. That simply wasn’t happening in Florida or Winnipeg.

Training Camp Surprise

Santorelli made an immediate impact as a Canuck at camp, emerging as the surprise winner during the grueling two-mile race, beating out the heavily-favoured Sedin twins (along with the rest of the team). Being able to run two miles really fast doesn’t have a ton of bearing on a person’s hockey playing abilities, but it does speak to Santorelli’s fitness/conditioning level and his pain threshold. No matter how fit you are, that is a tough distance to run.

John Tortorella places a significant emphasis on conditioning, and Santorelli was able to get into his good books early. But he didn’t rest on his laurels – his strong performance off the ice carried over once he laced up the blades. He was one of Vancouver’s best forwards at camp, and that has continued on now that the games matter.

Looking Forward

There is a lot of time left in 2013-14, but Santorelli will be given every opportunity to prove that his early season success is no fluke. He isn’t a one-dimensional scorer, and that versatility will ensure that he sees regular minutes, even if his offensive production dries up.

After an early-season OT winner against the devils, John Tortorella had this to say about Santorelli:

“Everywhere I put him, something happens.”

Wing, center, on the forecheck, cycling the puck, in front of the net, power play, penalty kill, in the faceoff circle – Santorelli has been able to provide positive contributions to the team in a number of ways.

Santorelli’s skill and instincts were on full display last week as he made a terrific play to set up Brad Richardson’s overtime winner against the Islanders:

Let’s take a closer look.

Santorelli quickly turns the puck up the ice after an Islanders turnover. He isn’t Mason Raymond fast, but Santorelli’s first few steps are phenomenal (acceleration and speed are very different things). He creates some separation here because of it.

Once New York defenseman Brian Strait closes the gap on him, Santorelli makes a really strong play to maintain balance (and control of the puck) while driving his body into the defender – no easy feat. This is something that Sidney Crosby is known for. Most NHL players are great skaters in terms of speed, but the elite skaters possess a significant advantage in the balance department. Don’t get me wrong, Santorelli isn’t in Crosby’s stratosphere in terms of hockey ability, but he is a very strong all-around skater.

He gains the blue line, and recognizing that the Canucks may have the advantage in numbers, makes a really smart play to turn back and create a two-on-one situation for his teammates instead of continuing to try and beat his man one-on-one.

Santorelli proceeds to thread a Sedin-like pass through to Richardson, who calls the bank shot en route to beating Evgeni Nabokov for the win. I started working on a Santorelli column last week, and a part of me was trying to get it written up quickly while he was still on a hot streak. But his game keeps evolving and improving, and the contributions keep coming. It looks like the Canucks have found a keeper here.

Doing the little things right is not only a common sports cliché, it is also one of Tortorella’s coaching philosophies. And for Santorelli, doing the little things right is leading to big results.

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