The Vancouver Canucks have the most productive line in the NHL these days with Henrik and Daniel Sedin skating alongside Ryan Kesler.
The three have seen plenty of time good times together on the power play. But now they're together all the time.
New Canucks head coach John Tortorella put the trio together midway through a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 15. Since then the Sedins and Kesler have responded with a combined 12 goals and 27 points in eight games. More importantly, the Canucks have gone 6-1-1 in this span.
Tortorella likes Kesler on right wing because of his strong work along the boards and his forechecking ability. But in order for the head coach to make the move, he needed to see someone play well enough to replace Kesler at centre on the second line. That search landed at the skates of Mike Santorelli, a hometown kid whose career was in flux after last season.
"The emergence of Mike Santorelli has allowed me to move things around a little bit with our lines," Tortorella said. "It's nice to be able to move Kesler around."
The Canucks signed 27-year-old Santorelli as an unrestricted free agent to a bargain, one-year, $550,000 deal in the summer. The Florida Panthers gave up on him last year. He then was picked up on waivers by the Winnipeg Jets, but failed to impress that organization in his 10 games to end the season.
Santorelli turned pro after three fruitful years at North Michigan University that was preceded by two solid seasons in the BCHL, first with Langley Hornets and then the Vernon Vipers.
The Nashville Predators drafted him in the sixth round (178th overall) in 2004. After three seasons back and forth between the Predators and their AHL team in Milwaukee, he followed former Nashville director of player personnel Mike Santos to Florida after Santos was hired as the Panthers assistant general manager.
In Santorelli's first full season with the Panthers, playing on a line with current Canucks forward David Booth, he checked in with a career-high 20 goals and 41 points. But the Panthers switched coaches from Peter DeBoer to Kevin Dineen the next season and Santorelli's play declined.
"I've never had that attitude," said Santorelli when asked if he maybe rested on his laurels too much after his standout year. "I never take things for granted."
There were rumblings that maybe Santorelli and Dineen didn't see eye-to-eye, but the player knew coming into this season he had to find his game or the future was dim.
'I needed to reestablish myself'
"It's been a pretty tough two years. I needed to reestablish myself," said Santorelli, whose 25-year-old brother Mark plays for Bolzano HC in Austria. "I had holes in my game. I got away from my strengths, my skating and using my speed."
Two more strengths are his fitness level and his impressive shootout percentage. He's 11-for-22 in his career.
Santorelli arrived at training camp last month as a hopeful to land a spot among the bottom six forwards, but already has four goals and nine points in 14 outings and Tortorella has played him more than 23 minutes on three occasions.
Sometimes for athletes, it's not easy to play at home. There is more pressure, there are more distractions and family and friends to please.
But Santorelli, a Burnaby Winter Club product, has relished the chance to play for his beloved Canucks. It didn't hurt that his former Florida teammates Booth and Jason Garrison, as well as his former Nashville colleague Dan Hamhuis, were already with Vancouver. He also regularly sees his uncle, who works security at Rogers Arena.
"It's been great," Santorelli said. "Growing up here and now playing here has been a dream come true."
That dream will continue later this week, when he will witness former Vancouver great Pavel Bure have his No. 10 retired in a pre-game ceremony on Saturday. Santorelli was eight years old and sitting beside his father inside the Pacific Coliseum when Bure was stopped by New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final.
"Pavel Bure and Markus Naslund were my idols, the players I most liked to watch" Santorelli said. "Saturday night will be exciting."
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