TORONTO — John Tortorella’s time in Vancouver will be remembered more for trying to get into the Calgary Flames’ locker-room than what he got out of Canucks players. Mike Santorelli is the exception.
While the Tortorella experiment lasted just a year and represented a low point for this group of Canucks, Santorelli more than any other player benefited from the fiery coach’s trust and made the most of it.
"He definitely believed in me and gave me that chance," Santorelli said of Tortorella. "For me, it worked out real well. I think our styles kind of match. It was a good fit for myself. I definitely owe him a lot."
Santorelli owes Tortorella at least partial credit for revitalizing his career. A part-time NHL player with the Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets out of the lockout, the 28-year-old jump-started his game under Tortorella.
On a US$550,000, one-year contract, Santorelli was not expected to do too much for the Canucks. The Burnaby, B.C., native just happened to be a Tortorella kind of guy.
"He came into training camp and I think he was at the top of all the fitness testing," said David Booth, a teammate of Santorelli’s with the Canucks who also signed with the Leafs. "I think that started Mike off on the right foot. And the way he works in practice is everything John looked at and likes."
Santorelli wasn’t just the sandpaper Tortorella wanted. He also brought an offensive spark, especially early with four goals, including two in overtime, in his first seven games.
While making a big impact, Santorelli earned a bigger role.
"He’s a guy that came in and I didn’t know a lot about and right off the bat impressed me," Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said. "He worked his way up from I don’t even think making our team before training camp to being our second-line centre and making guys around him better."
Tortorella and the Canucks seemed to be like oil and water. But things didn’t fall apart until Santorelli was injured.
Through the first 49 games, Santorelli was fourth on the Canucks in scoring with 28 points on 10 goals and 18 assists, trailing only Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler. His right shoulder injury, a torn labrum that required surgery and ended his season, coincided with Vancouver’s descent down the standings.
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Vancouver’s first game without Santorelli was the night an enraged Tortorella tried to get to Flames coach Bob Hartley in the other locker-room, the incident that led to a 15-day suspension. Along with general manager Mike Gillis, Tortorella was fired at the completion of the Canucks’ first season out of the playoffs since 2008.
"Guys have different viewpoints on him," Booth said of Tortorella. "He was hard. He thought I was weird and I thought he was weird."
But Tortorella liked Santorelli, and the feeling was mutual.
"For me I thought he was fair," Santorelli said. "When you made a mistake, he gave you the opportunity to explain why you did it, and he just corrected you."
Booth referred to Santorelli as "a coach’s favourite wherever he goes." Toronto’s Randy Carlyle appreciates what Santorelli brings, but that took time and an adjustment.
Carlyle said after reviewing training camp that Santorelli didn’t look like he was going to be all that dynamic of a player. Then the coaching staff moved him from centre to wing and watched as he put up 18 points in the season’s first 25 games.
"He’s much more comfortable and his work ethic is very noticeable on the wing," Carlyle said. "I think that has been enlightening to everybody that he’s a much more dynamic player when he plays the wing vs. centre."
On a $1.5-million, one-year deal, Santorelli came into camp with slightly higher expectations than he did in 2013 with the Canucks but was still among a host of forwards battling for bottom-six spots. He proved his value as an interchangeable part and has been in the lineup for every game so far.
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin praised Santorelli for his work ethic, especially in the summer.
"He puts a lot of hours in and he wants to prepare, and that pays off," Sedin said. "He’s so strong on the puck — he makes something out of nothing. You think the play is over, but he seems to find guys and hold onto the puck that extra second, which opens up a lot of things."
Santorelli isn’t at the forefront of the Leafs’ success through more than a quarter of the season, but he has been a nice role player in it.
Bieksa is hardly surprised by the continued improvement of the even-keeled Santorelli.
"He’s one of those guys you don’t really appreciate unless you’re with him day-in and day-out," Bieksa said. "He’s one of the most underrated players in the league."