Is Mike Santorelli for real?

There’s no other explanation: he must have a fairy godmother in his corner.

Mike Santorelli’s Cinderella story just keeps getting better and better. His three points on Sunday brought him up to 21 on the season, fourth on the Canucks, all while on a league-minimum $550,000 contract. It’s also a two-way contract, though there’s no chance he’ll get sent down to the Utica Comets this season and have that come into effect.

His surprising season even has some in the Smylosphere suggesting the Canucks re-sign the centre immediately, before he puts up more points and prices himself too high.

The Canucks have reason to be cautious when it comes to signing Santorelli to an extension, however, as there’s still the fear that he could turn back into a pumpkin at midnight.

Any time an unrestricted free agent proves to be a bargain for his new team, people ask how other teams missed out on him. Leafs fans have asked how the Canucks could have let Mason Raymond go and how he didn’t sign with anyone else before accepting a tryout with Toronto. Brad Boyes once scored 43 goals with the Blues in 2007-08 and had 35 points in 48 games with the Islanders last season, but he only joined the Panthers on a camp invite. Both Raymond and Boyes are making just $1 million this season.

No player has been as big a bargain as Santorelli, however, something no one saw coming heading into this season. We certainly didn’t think much of the signing back in July and there’s not much chance even Mike Gillis saw things going this well or he likely would have signed Santorelli a lot earlier in free agency.

Santorelli is currently on pace for 20 goals and 52 points, legitimate point totals for a top-end second line forward or low-end first-liner. At the very least, you can call Santorelli a top-six forward, which is astounding considering his salary, when most other forwards making league minimum are bouncing between the fourth line and the AHL.

The problem is that Santorelli has done this before.

In 2010-11, in his first season with the Florida Panthers, Santorelli found chemistry with Stephen Weiss and David Booth on the first line. He scored 20 goals and 41 points that season, good for second on the Panthers. Yes, the Panthers were terrible that season, but Santorelli looked like a legitimate top-six forward, earning a two-year, $3.2 million extension.

The next season, however, Santorelli fell off a cliff. Not literally, because that would be terrible, but he scored just 11 points in 60 games and was often a healthy scratch, including all 7 games of the Panthers’ first round playoff loss to the New Jersey Devils.

Things didn’t get any better during the 2012-13 season, as he scored just 3 points through 24 games and was waived by the Panthers. Picked up off waivers by the Winnipeg Jets, Santorelli scored just 1 point in 10 games to finish the year. After 20 goals and 41 points in 82 games in 2010-11, he scored just 11 goals and 15 points in his next 94 games.

As a result, no one’s asking why no other teams took a chance on Santorelli before the Canucks signed him this year. If the Canucks are going to re-sign Santorelli, they need to be sure they’re re-signing this Santorelli, and not the one that disappeared after 2010-11.

There’s reason to believe that things will be different for Santorelli this time around, however. After his career year with the Panthers, the team made significant changes in the 2011 off-season that had a major impact on Santorelli. The first was the influx of free agents brought in by Dale Tallon:  Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg, and Scottie Upshall were all signed in 2011, pushing Santorelli down the depth chart and taking away the bulk of his power play ice time.

The second was the firing of head coach Pete DeBoer and the hiring of Kevin Dineen. Suddenly Santorelli had to prove himself to a new coach and he just never seemed to earn his trust.

Making matters worse is that Santorelli suffered a shoulder injury during the pre-season and missed the first 7 games of the season. While the rest of the Panthers’ lineup was showing Dineen where they fit on the roster at the beginning of the season, Santorelli was in the press box and may not have been 100% when he did get back in the lineup.

The next season saw the addition of yet another centre, top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau, to the Panthers’ roster. With Huberdeau, Shawn Matthias, Marcel Goc, Peter Mueller, and Drew Shore in the lineup, there was little ice time left for Santorelli.

Different coaches look for different things when they first meet new players. Some coaches notice size or speed first, attributes that Santorelli lacks. Whatever Dineen was looking for, he evidently didn’t find it in Santorelli.

In Vancouver, on the other hand, Santorelli came into a perfect situation. The Canucks had a new coach with no preconceptions about players already on the roster and, instead of prizing size or speed, John Tortorella stressed conditioning above all else from the start of training camp. That was an area in which Santorelli could excel, which immediately put him in Tortorella’s good graces.

Knowing that Santorelli was in such excellent shape meant that Tortorella could rely on him right away to play big minutes and Santorelli took advantage of that opportunity to play excellent two-way hockey, ensuring that Tortorella would continue using him in all situations. Even in 2010-11 with the Panthers, Santorelli averaged under 17 minutes per game, while he’s playing 18:38 per game with the Canucks.

Santorelli has found good chemistry with Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins on the second line and, most impressively, is putting up the best possession numbers of his career. While starting more in the defensive zone than in any previous season, Santorelli has an outstanding 55.8 Fenwick percentage, fourth on the Canucks behind Alex Burrows, Higgins, and Henrik Sedin.

While it might be easy to argue that he’s benefitting from a puck possession standpoint from playing with the likes of Kesler, Higgins, and the Sedins, it’s his ability to gain the opponents’ blue line with possession of the puck that has helped drive those numbers. Santorelli has the highest percentage of controlled zone entries on the Canucks, indicating that he isn’t just a passenger, but is helping to drive puck possession for whatever line he plays on.

This backs up what we see on the ice: Santorelli may not be the fastest or biggest player, but he’s shifty on his skates and remarkably intelligent, skating the puck in along the boards and keeping possession with quick shifts and excellent body position.

There’s also every indication that Santorelli’s production isn’t purely based on luck. While he has one of the highest PDOs on the team, it’s mainly high because of the Canucks’ save percentage when he is on the ice. That means his team-high plus-minus rating likely won’t last, but his even-strength scoring seems sustainable.

What’s truly remarkable, then, is that none of Santorelli’s scoring has come on the power play. Santorelli has 20 points at even-strength, leading the Canucks, and has one point short-handed, but has nothing yet on the power play, despite a prominent presence on the second unit. All of the Canucks’ power play scoring has come from the first unit, but you have to think that Santorelli will eventually pick up a few points with the man advantage.

There are reasons, then, to be cautiously optimistic about Santorelli’s ability to continue producing for the Canucks, both this season and next. The caution comes in when you consider what may happen next season, as there may be parallels to what happened in Florida.

Will Tortorella survive as coach or will Santorelli have to prove himself all over again to a new coach? With the salary cap going up significantly and Gillis pledging to spend to the cap, will Santorelli have to out-battle a swathe of new competition, including prospects like Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce?

Does the glass slipper fit or will Santorelli go back to scrubbing floors?

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9 comments

  1. theycallmejanis
    December 13, 2013

    Well said. Santorelli has been a pleasant surprise in the lineup, and it’s great to see a guy excel when this could have been his last chance in the pros.
    Also, this article is just perfect proof of how advanced stats should be used. It takes out so much guesswork and ‘gut feelings’ from projections. Love it, and couldn’t be happier about Santorelli’s play to put up those numbers.

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  2. Chris
    December 13, 2013

    Outside of something truly remarkable and unpredictable happening, I hardly see a scenario in which Torts isn’t back next season, so having to win a new coach over shouldn’t be in the cards hopefully. That said, if we are looking to have any of our prospects play, and play in a top six, and should Booth injure himself conveniently right before the end of the season in an attempt to not get bought out, then we might not have enough room for him. though the truly elite teams have second line players playing on the third line, so it’s not the worst problem to have.

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  3. akidd
    December 13, 2013

    “and should Booth injure himself conveniently right before the end of the season in an attempt to not get bought out, then we might not have enough room for him.”

    it’s too late. i think booth has already seen Fubar 2. he probably won’t do the ankle this tine though. that was a bit messy.:)

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  4. Matt
    December 13, 2013

    Does Santorelli remind anyone else of Kyle Wellwood?

    Player with a decent season or two but lacking consistency gets brought into Vancouver on a cheap deal, isn’t the biggest or the fastest guy but has great hands, ends up being one of the top point-getters on the team and looking like a legitimate top-6 forward through the first third of the season?

    It’s always bugged me that the Canucks didn’t hang on to Wellwood. He’s never cost much money, he’s got some limitations as a player but he’s solid at both ends of the ice, has good underlying numbers, and you can certainly do a lot worse for a depth guy who can play centre or wing.

    Hopefully Vancouver w’on’t make the same mistake twice and will keep Santorelli around as long as they can get him on a reasonable deal.

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    • Body Schmautz
      December 15, 2013

      I’m sorry but you couldn’t pick two more different players in terms of conditioning…

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  5. tom selleck's moustache
    December 13, 2013

    “Both Raymond and Boyes are making just $1 million this season.”

    I wish I was an NHL player.

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  6. Lenny
    December 16, 2013

    Good stuff. I hope that the coaching staff and management have the same statistics as you do and use them wisely when it’s time to consider future plans.

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  7. Franko
    December 16, 2013

    Nice Perspectives on Santo. Lots of Upside on this horse.
    Torts sees a lot of himself in Santorelli.
    Santo provides a lot of steady balance to the Canucks.
    Excellent team player.

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