On a late January morning in 2021, the St. Louis Blues taxi-squad players were finishing up some extra work.
While most players were already off the ice, 22-year-old defenseman Scott Perunovich was the final player working on passing drills with a coach. Just a few weeks later, the highly touted young blueliner underwent shoulder surgery that would sideline him for the rest of the season.
It was a disappointing end to a season that hadn't really started for the Blues' top defensive prospect. Returning to the University of Minnesota-Duluth wasn’t an option, nor was the AHL because the Springfield Thunderbirds opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. The 2018 second-round pick may not have found his way into any games prior to his injury, but sticking around the NHL club surely helped acclimate him to pro hockey.
The Blues wanted to ease Perunovich into action this season by sending him right to the AHL to hone his craft. His 17 points through 10 games sound ridiculous for a rookie, leading many to wonder why he hasn't been called up yet.
Simply put: there's no reason to rush him.
Coming in at five-foot-10 and 175 pounds, his physicality is still a concern. There have been a number of times this season where Perunovich goes into a puck battle and winds up on his rear end or he seems to be outworking his opponent without getting anywhere. There has been some progress this season already, understanding that he needs to out-skill players and use body position rather than out-muscle them.
Where Perunovich seems to excel as a defender is defending against the rush. He plays an aggressive anticipatory style of defense. He thrives when he is jumping on the puck carrier as soon as possible, often just outside of the blueline. Perunovich attacks the puck and disrupts the offensive player’s rush pattern, forcing a dump in or errant pass. While he doesn’t engage the body very often, his stick is quite accurate. This aggressive style of defense can lead to being burned from time to time but the payoff is often an odd-man rush going the other way.
It's in transition where Perunovich really starts to show that his skills are NHL level. The ability to send passes from one blue line to the other is key in today’s game and Perunovich is quite adept. Perunovich has excellent vision and reads defensive units extremely well. His anticipation continues to shine through in this facet of the game as well, passing off his opponent’s back foot and manipulating them with his edges and agility.
You can’t put up points without some offensive zone efficiency though and that’s where Perunovich truly shines. Perunovich might be an NHL-level power-play quarterback already at this point. He shows off his soft touch while feathering passes from the point and has a willingness to attack space when it presents itself. Decisive puck movement is key to an effective power play at the NHL level and Perunovch can provide that.
At 5-on-5, Perunovich is a bit of a risk-taker. He loves to dive in on the play in the offensive zone, attacking the puck with speed. He will often creep into the high slot for a good scoring chance or slide down the wall to support a puck battle. He is at his best when he is finding his way into the faceoff dots to act as a shooting option and an outlet for a puck deep in the zone.
The 23-year-old rookie may find his way onto the NHL roster at some point this season, but St. Louis is wise to allow him to ferment in the minors for now. Giving him time to adjust to the strength of the men’s game will be key. He has the offensive side of the game figured out. Perunovich moves the puck effectively and efficiently.
With a bit more seasoning, his defensive game should come along because he has all of the tools required to play the aggressive, stick checking, and positionally sound game that he wants to. He just needs to do it at a bit more consistent level before he gets to the NHL. Patience will be key.
Only time will tell how good the 2020 Hobey Baker winner will be. Perunovich has the player to model himself after in fellow small defender Torey Krug and the skill and mobility to become a real difference-maker on the Blues backend.
Just not quite yet.