DALLAS – When you listen to Scott Perunovich speak, or at least if you were listening to him on the day he was drafted, he sounds a little like a kid going through puberty. His voice cracks a little in spots. But it’s probably fitting since Perunovich has made quite a habit of being late to the party when it comes to his hockey career.
But now that he’s here, there is a lot to like about the St. Louis Blues second-round pick in 2018. The NHL has been skewing toward smaller skilled players for a couple of years now, but somewhere along the line they didn’t get the memo on Perunovich, a 19-year-old who stands just 5-foot-9 and weighs 175 pounds. But there is some hope he still has time to add to those totals with a growth spurt. His father, Jim, stands a robust 6-foot-3.
“My dad didn’t grow until his second year of college,” Perunovich said, “and I’ve got some pretty big feet, too, so I hope I might have a few more inches in me.”
Even if he doesn’t grow more, Perunovich has provided the hockey world with a tantalizing glimpse of what he’s able to accomplish. And much of that came this past season when he not only made the U.S. World Junior team, but also helped the University of Minnesota-Duluth to a national championship. He was named to the all-tournament team at the Frozen Four and won the Tim Taylor Award as the top freshman in all of U.S. college hockey, following in the footsteps of past winners Jack Eichel, Kyle Connor and Clayton Keller.
But unlike those players, Perunovich was never considered a first-round prospect. In fact, when he finally was taken 45th overall by the Blues this past June, it was his third time being draft eligible. With 211 picks in 2016 and 218 in 2017, you could really say that Perunovich was actually the 473rd overall pick. To say he has taken the circuitous route onto the NHL’s radar would be a huge understatement. The native of Hibbing, Minn., played his high school hockey in the lower-rated Single-A high school league in Minnesota before being taken 147th overall by the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL. And, hoo boy, was that some kind of experience. The RoughRiders finished dead last in the league with a 12-44-4 record, largely because they started the season 0-18-0.
But through it all, through all the losses, through all the experiences of being overlooked, Perunovich did not quit on his dream and now he’s finally reaping the rewards of all his hard work. Even though the season was filled with losses in Cedar Rapids, he learned under one of the most successful coaches in USHL history in Mark Carlson and played well enough to earn a scholarship at UMD. After another rough start in Duluth, both Perunovich and the Bulldogs flourished and good things started to happen.
More importantly, though, the rough patches helped Perunovich gain some perspective and made his resolve even stronger. He’s been accustomed to people telling him he wouldn’t succeed, but going through two drafts provided him with the motivation he needed to vault himself into a group of elite prospects. He watched the 2017 draft in his cabin in Northern Minnesota and admits that after talking to a couple of teams prior to that draft, he didn’t take being passed over very well. “I think I handled it better than my first year,” Perunovich said. “The second year I talked to a couple of teams, but it didn’t work out. I got my hopes up and I was maybe a little too immature about that. And then I had a good off-season.”
The result is a small defensemen with an offensive bent to his game who is working on being better in his own end of the ice. And there has been a lot of progress on that front. “I’m not going to knock too many big guys over in the corners, but I think I can outsmart them with my mind,” Perunovich said. “I’ve been working on a good stick lately, too, so I think if I have a good first stick and get some pressure right away, I think I can handle it. Hockey is definitely changing and the way it is changing has helped a defenseman like me a lot.”
Perunovich has three more years of college eligibility, so there is no rush to get him to the next level. Which is fine with him since he’s become accustomed to delayed gratification. But it’s nice to know that his belief in himself has finally begun to start paying off.
“My entire life growing up all I heard was, ‘Your game is not going to work at the next level, from high school to junior, from junior to college’, but you don’t listen to that stuff,” he said. “You just try to prove everyone wrong.”
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