Vancouver Canucks Free Agency Options: Mike Santorelli


In the seemingly endless downtime this off-season, Every week(ish), I’ve been investigating the Canucks’ complex free agency situation. In the first installment, I argued that Jim Benning should say goodbye to UFA Brad Richardson to make way for more of the youth pushing up through the system. In the second installment, I took a look at each of the pending RFAs on the Canucks blueline, and came to the conclusion that while there’s a lot of potential there, there is also a lot of uncertainty, and not a whole lot of information with which to make a decision.

This week I’m going to look at an intriguing UFA name coming up on the open market: Mike “Prodigal Son” Santorelli.

Mike Santorelli is an intriguing, if not entirely exciting name on the open market, and one who might actually be worth looking into acquiring, if the price and term are favourable to the home team. The argument against him, of course, is that he’s an older middle six forward, of which the team seems to already have in plenty. He would also be taking over a spot that could be given up to developing prospects or younger players–basically the same reasons that I gave when arguing that the team should let Richardson walk. However, there are a couple factors that make Santorelli a bit of a different piece than Richardson, which I’ll get into shortly.

But first, a little back-story Santorelli’s long, winding and weird career.

Drafted 178th overall by the Nashville Predators, Santorelli started off his NHL career as a depth/energy guy, before being traded to the Florida Panthers. In Florida, he enjoyed a pretty sweet breakout season in 2010-11, putting up 20 goals and 21 assists in 82 games. That season was kind of a high water mark, however, as a shoulder injury derailed any momentum Santorelli had after that. After struggling to get back on track in Flordia, Santorelli ended up with the Jets for a brief stint, before Canucks GM Mike Gillis picked him up during the great bargain-bin UFA crawl of 2013. (Same year that brought us Brad Richardson as well.)

This ended up being a savvy move, as Santorelli enjoyed a promising, but all-too-brief comeback campaign, providing a spark of life to an otherwise dreary and disappointing season. Santorelli ended up posting 28 points in 49 games, before another injury ended his time with the team. When healthy, though, Santorelli was a fantastic depth option, sliding around the middle six with ease, complimenting whoever he played with, and even slotting in at number 2 center when Kesler took a turn as the Sedins’ winger. Not only that, but Santorelli’s conditioning, fitness and work ethic were all outstanding: in Tortorella’s infamously grueling fitness tests to begin preseason, Santorelli finished first in the two-mile run, beating out the second and third place Sedins.

After the unfortunate end to 2013-14, new management decided, despite Santorelli’s promise, to let him sign elsewhere, which was disappointing, but understandable. Santorelli’s track record was still spotty, and they wanted to bring in their own guys. Signing instead with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Santorelli continued his consistent play, putting up another solid 33 point season between Toronto and Nashville, where he was dealt at the deadline, as a reward for being one of the few Maple Leaf players of value. (Heyo!)

Now, I had assumed that Santorelli would probably be looking elsewhere, but news broke last week that Santorelli’s agent says he would be more than happy to come back and play for his hometown team. Knowing what we do about Santorelli’s track record, his overall level of play and his perceived market value, is he somebody the Canucks should try to woo back?

Let’s take a look at some underlying numbers:

First off, when a guy posts career numbers in one year, and never does it again, it tends to set off some red flags: was it a percentage-driven fluke? Did Santorelli just get some lucky bounces and then revert back to a fourth-line player? Looking at his numbers in his breakout 2010-11 season suggests no. While putting up 41 points, Santorelli also drove play consistently as well, with a 52% Score Adjusted CF. He also had a slightly lower than normal PDO of 98, and a fairly normal shooting percentage of 10%, both of which suggest that the stats were no fluke.

Of course, that was when Santorelli was 24. At the slightly riper age of 29, it can’t be expected that he will enjoy quite the success he had of years gone by. Still, if we look at his last two seasons, split between Vancouver, Toronto and Nashville, Santorelli has still continued to provide consistent play-driving abilities. He’s been a positive possession player in Vancouver and Nashville, and while dipping below 50% in Toronto, he still posted strong numbers relative to his peers, playing in a system that suppressed possession horrendously. He also continued to shoot at or around 10%, and his PDO was normalized as well, meaning that what you saw is what you get–it’s unlikely that Santorelli will perform better or worse, which in his case is solid and dependable if unspectacular.

Also worth noting, is that when he enjoyed his 20 goal season, he was starting the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone. Since moving to Vancouver, Toronto and Nashville, his defensive zone starts have become more prominent, and it seems he’s been used in more of a shut-down role: his offensive zone starts relative to the rest of the team (ZSO% Rel) has fallen from -7% in Vancouver, all the way to -27% in Nashville, where he actually improved on his possession numbers.

Even with strong underlying stats, dependable middle-of-the-road counting stats and overall versatility, what separates the signing of Santorelli over a similar veteran Brad Richardson? Well, for one thing, Richardson has never been the offensive threat that Santorelli is, at any stage of his career. Richardson’s career high in points is 28, and it came all the way back in his first season with the Kings in 2009.

Richardson was possibly on pace to break that mark last year, posting 21 points in 45 games; however, the numbers suggest that this was largely luck: his shooting percentage was the highest it’s ever been in his career at almost 13%, and he wasn’t actually taking that many shots compared to his career averages. If one were to bet on one or the other repeating their point totals from last year, Santorelli would be more likely.

Secondly, while Brad Richardson is an ace penalty killer, Santorelli is no slouch on defense either. He also brings much more versatility and depth to the lineup overall. While Brad Richardson’s absolute ceiling is 3rd line center, he is much more suited to a fourth line role. Santorelli, while being capable of holding down third or fourth line center duties, can also slot up as high as second (although this isn’t ideal) in case of injury, and he is also an adept winger, meaning he can conceivably fill any holes from the second line down. Having this kind of player, who works hard, can play all positions, and carry possession is an invaluable asset to have, especially on a team where you’re trying to integrate youth into a winning environment.

So, instead of thinking of Santorelli as a Richardson replacement, perhaps it’s better to think of him as a Burrows or Higgins Light, plus extra value for playing center. The bonus to this, is if Santorelli could be enticed to come in on a $2 million year deal, maybe for two years, it frees up room to trade Chris Higgins while his value is at its highest. I’m not of the camp that thinks Higgins is entirely expendable to be honest, but if the goal is to get assets and remain competitive, someone like Santorelli would free up space to make other deals, and allow the team to still carry play on a regular basis.

Ultimately, if a Santorelli deal doesn’t get done, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. However, even if it doesn’t make the Canucks younger, signing Santorelli (or someone like him–although these players are harder to come by than you might think) makes the team a whole lot more flexible, which will ultimately help them add youth through other channels, and remain exciting to watch at the NHL level for at least a little while longer.

Next: Canucks 1997 Draft Retrospective

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