ST. LOUIS – As the St. Louis Blues navigate through a tough start to the new season, one youngster has been noticeably absent from the lineup more times than not.
Defenseman Scott Perunovich won the Hobey Baker Award in 2020, an honor bestowed to college hockey’s top player each year. Drafted by the Blues in 2018, Perunovich shined in three seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth and, at times, has drawn comparisons to former captain Alex Pietrangelo through his balanced approach.
Perunovich made his NHL debut in 2021, but he hasn’t had the chance to play much at the top level. He’s been a bit unlucky, missing several months of action due to wrist and elbow surgeries. That said, the 25-year-old defenseman has a clean bill of health this year and even maintained rookie eligibility heading into the 2023-24 campaign.
After this weekend, the Blues will have completed ten games in the young season. Perunovich has only played twice, and he served as a healthy scratch for each of the team’s first six games.
By the end of the weekend, it’s very possible that Perunovich, once one of the team’s top prospects, will have sat out eight of the first ten games.
The Blues opened the new season with eight defensemen rostered at the top level, even though a traditional hockey lineup only calls for six blueliners on any given night.
When at full strength, the regulars consist of Justin Faulk, Colton Parayko, Torey Krug, Nick Leddy and usually Marco Scandella. The Blues have invested a lot into this core, accounting for nearly one-third of the team’s entire payroll.
All five have a no-trade clause of sorts tied into their contracts. Only Scandella is a pending free agent, and the other four are signed for at least three more years. The Blues, for better or for worse, face a lot of pressure to ride with these guys on a nightly basis when healthy.
That leaves one spot open in a traditional six-man unit or two on a less conventional seven-man unit, which head coach Craig Berube experimented with at times last season.
Tyler Tucker has won most of the available opportunities, playing seven times. As a result, the Blues have only inserted Perunovich and well-respected veteran Robert Bortuzzo twice into the lineups.
Even when he’s played, Perunovich has been limited in ice time, averaging only around 11 minutes per game, while some teammates, like Faulk and Parayko, average close to double that. He also hasn’t established signature blocking or checking qualities that the Blues defense has thrived behind during recent playoff-bound years.
Insight from Army & Chief
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and head coach Craig Berube knew finding opportunities for Perunovich could be challenging before the new season even started.
“Right now he’s not in our group of six [regular starters], but he’s on our team,” said Doug Armstrong on Oct. 11. “He has to help on the offensive side of the puck and the special teams, but also he has to be competent at his own end. That’s really what we’re looking for: going to get back to pucks quickly, transition the park out of our zone, and be a good offensive player when he gets that opportunity.”
Armstrong believes Perunovich has another level to unlock to his gameplay before more frequent starts, plus adds that the Blues want to be cautious after recent surgeries.
“We believe that his game is evolving,” said Armstrong. “At his experience level, not maybe age, but just due to injury games play that he has to play games to to understand what’s in front of him and to get better, but we’re not going to force that.”
Armstrong adds that Perunovich’s size (5 feet, 10 inches and 175 pounds) gives him a different dyanmic than most other Blues defensemen, so he’ll need to intangibles like quickness, stick battles and puck positioning to his advantage more frequently.
Ahead of Friday’s game, Berube echoed a similar sentiment to Armstrong on Perunovich, adding the regular defense has been effective in certain spots.
“Right now, the way our D-core is lined up, I think they’ve been defended pretty well on doing the job,” said Berube. “I know the power play is not clicking like we want it to, but at the same time, [Perunovich] got to be patient.”
Berube continued, “He’s got to be patient. He’s missed a lot of hockey over the last few years, and just coming into camp this year, he had to beat somebody out of a spot and I don’t think that happened. But at the same time, he’s got to work in practice and treat practices almost like games for himself, and stay ready.”
Berube added that Perunovich is practicing hard and making some strides, though reiterated the need for patience and finding Perunovich the right opportunities.
Saturday could be the next chance for Perunovich as the Blues complete the second end of games on back-to-back nights. Friday marks the start of a four-game home streak for St. Louis, looking to build on a 3-4-1 record.