by Peter Shannon || AHL On The Beat Archive
The Milwaukee Admirals have been a consistent breeding ground for NHL-caliber skaters. Nashville Predators draftees such as Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne and Jordin Tootoo may be some of the more recent Milwaukee players making their names in the NHL, but the young talent on the Admirals squad this year is second to none, led by second-year center Mike Santorelli.
The 23-year-old Vancouver native is shining bright in his second year with the Admirals, averaging about a point per game. Along with forward Cal O’Reilly and defenseman Cody Franson, he earned a trip to the 2009 AHL All-Star Classic, were he became just the fourth player in league history to go 4-for-4 in the accuracy shooting competition. He earned the label of AHL Player of the Month in November, and best of all he was called up for his first stint in Nashville to get a taste of what his future may hold.
Santorelli played his college games on the Upper Peninsula at Northern Michigan University. He attended for three years, recording 30-, 33- and 47-point seasons and was drafted by the Preds in the sixth round of the 2004 draft.
In his rookie season in Milwaukee in 2007-08, Santorelli notched an impressive 42 points (21g, 21a) in 80 games. This season as a sophomore, he’s playing a larger role as one of the leaders both on and off the ice.
“This year I’m just playing a bigger role,” Santorelli said. “The coaches have a lot of confidence in me. I’ve been playing with some real good players here and we’ve got a great team.”
Anyone who has stepped onto the ice knows that when coaches have high expectations for you, it helps when they back you up and give you the opportunity to excel in order to bring your game to a higher level. But, it doesn’t come naturally for everybody. Santorelli is one of the hardest working guys on the team, constantly trying to better his game and learn new things every day.
“I think it’s both hard work and skill development,” he said. “I like to work really hard, but I think it’s improvement of my game too. Head coach Lane Lambert is a real good coach and he teaches me great things. The things he taught me last year and continues to teach me this year help quite a bit.”
The modest Admiral’s reaction to being selected to travel to Worcester, Mass., for the 2009 AHL All-Star Classic was almost sheer astonishment. Even though he more than earned his spot on the Canadian team, he didn’t seem to have any idea that he might be making the trip out east with two other teammates while the rest of the squad took the weekend off.
“I didn’t even think about it until the day Lane came into the office and told us three that we were going,” Santorelli said. “We had a real good stretch as a team and getting to go to the All-Star Game with Cody and Cal was really fun.”
An even better trip for the 6-3, 189-pound pivot this season was down south instead of out east, and this time it was to step onto the ice for his first NHL game. He suited up for six Predators games during his first stint, and although he didn’t record any points, he gained plenty of insight into the big league program and he was able to experience what it will be like playing at the highest level of hockey in the world.
“It was great; all the guys up there. They know so many things. I was up there for six games and I learned so much in that time.”
Making the step up to the NHL marks one of the most important moments in any hockey player’s career. Santorelli has proven in the AHL that he is a contender who can skate at the highest level of play, and as only a second-year pro, Santorelli still has plenty of time to keep developing his game in order to excel at the next level.
“There’s parts of my game I think are ready but there’s also parts I need to improve on. I need to get a lot bigger and stronger,” Santorelli said.
Judging by his determination so far this season, if he continues on the same pace that he is on right now, he will definitely be seeing more of Nashville and the NHL in the not too distant future. For now, the West Division champion Admirals will depend on Santorelli for his talent and leadership to bring another playoff run to Milwaukee.