VANCOUVER -- To say Vancouver Canucks forward Mike Santorelli has surpassed even the wildest expectations of new coach John Tortorella coming into the season would be an understatement.
That's because Tortorella didn't have any.
"I didn't even know who Mike Santorelli was," he said Thursday.
Tortorella reiterated the preseason expectations that Santorelli was signed to a two-way free-agent contract not to play for his hometown team, but to provide depth in the American Hockey League.
Mike Santorelli got the attention of John Tortorella during training camp, played his way onto the Canucks and has enjoyed a breakthrough season. (Photo: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI)
Instead, Santorelli caught the eye of his new coach as the only one to finish ahead of fitness fanatics Daniel and Henrik Sedin in a two-mile training camp run and began rocketing up that depth chart, playing big minutes and a key role in the Canucks' recent success.
Now Santorelli is fourth in team scoring with 21 points, including eight goals, tied for the lead at plus-10, and a key part of the Canucks' best line of late, combining with Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins for six goals and 12 points during the past four games, all victories.
"He was off the map for me," Tortorella said. "I found out pretty quickly who he was when he came in the condition he was in and how he just said, ‘I am going to play here, you are not sending me to Utica.' With no words said to me, just with his actions, he said, ‘I am not going there,' and he has continued to go that way."
For Santorelli, it's been a dream come true playing for the team he grew up cheering, with family and friends watching from the stands and his uncle positioned outside the Canucks locker room. The long-time security guard at Rogers Arena lets the media in after games, and more often than not lately they want to talk to his nephew.
"It's always been my dream to play for Vancouver," Santorelli told NHL.com after practice Thursday, admitting his first 33 games doing so have exceeded even his best dreams coming into the season.
He's not alone in that regard. With a $550,000 salary, Santorelli tops the NHL "Bargain Hunter" list on CapGeek.com, a ranking based on the amount of money spent per goal, assist, point and ice time. But Santorelli's versatility has been just as valuable as he moves up and down the lineup, playing both wings and in the middle.
"He can play anywhere in the top nine," Kesler said.
Santorelli has earned the trust of the demanding Tortorella, playing all situations while averaging 18 minutes and 38 seconds of ice time, more than he can remember at any other point of his career. He has played more than 20 minutes 11 times this season, which is already two more than in his first 208 NHL games elsewhere, logged a career-high 23:42 against the rival San Jose Sharks five games into his Canucks career, and has only taken three minor penalties.
Tortorella now cites him as a role model for other young players.
Not bad for a 27-year-old who bounced around among four teams last season, including a stint in Sweden's second division and another in the AHL before being claimed off waivers by the Winnipeg Jets from the Florida Panthers. Just two years removed from scoring 20 goals in Florida, Santorelli had two goals and two assists in 34 NHL games last season. So he never hesitated to sign a two-way offer from his hometown team on the second day of free agency, but to him the story is more about his evolution than his return home.
Center - VAN
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 21
SOG: 63 | +/-: 10
"I had a rough couple years and knew I really needed to re-establish myself," Santorelli said. "My mindset coming in was I just wanted to get back to being me. Before I looked at everything else around me and didn't focus on what I needed to do to be successful."
For Santorelli that meant focusing on using his speed the right way at both ends of the ice. Not known for his physical style at 6-foot and 189 pounds, Santorelli spent the summer training to be stronger in battle situations along the boards without losing his speed.
"I scored 20 goals in Florida but I didn't play the right way," said Santorelli, who was minus-17 that season. "I got away from using my speed, getting to the net. I needed to be harder to play against."
Doing so allowed Santorelli to keep playing during a recent dry spell, when one goal and nine assists in 21 games had coaches wondering if they were seeing the beginning of the end. Santorelli bounced back with three goals and seven points in his past seven games.
"Guys get pigeonholed," Kesler said. "He's evolved his game."
The advanced statistics also paint a positive possession picture for Santorelli. His Corsi-For percentage on ExtraSkater.com of 53.1 matches Kesler, and his Fenwick-For percentage of 55.8 is even better (though against a slightly lesser quality of competition than Kesler, according to BehindtheNet.ca), indicating Vancouver gets more shots than the opponent when Santorelli is on the ice.
Higgins, who was in Florida with Santorelli, sees a difference.
"He seems smarter than he was," Higgins said. "He knows where to go to get the puck now. He reads the game really well, especially in the offensive zone, and he's better than I remember off the cycle. He ducks in and out of space and creates space for linemates. He's been fun to play with because he understands how to move off the puck."
Santorelli also understands his hometown-kid, feel-good story won't last long if he doesn't keep grinding at both ends of the ice.
"That's the NHL now, you have to be a gritty player," he said, pointing to Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk. "The best players in the League are gritty, competing and battling every single shift. They are all so strong on the puck. They are all good defensively. You can't play at one end of the ice. You just can't do that in this League anymore."
It's especially true when you are battling just to stay in the League, and your coach doesn't really know who you are.
Just ask Santorelli and Tortorella.