The St. Louis Blues selected undersized Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs defenseman Scott Perunovich (5’9, 176 lbs) in the second round, 45th overall, at the 2018 NHL Draft. He is the first Hibbing, Minnesota native to be drafted since the LA Kings took Kelly Fairchild in the seventh round back in the 1991 draft. He went undrafted in both the 2016 and 2017 NHL Drafts with his size as the main factor to why he was overlooked by many scouts. So he took his talents to the college circuit, where Perunovich had a great year last season becoming a pivotal piece for the Bulldogs in their National Championship run along with helping Team USA take bronze at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo, where he got one goal and two assists in seven games. Perunovich will be 20 in August.
A great season earned him a lot of recognition in the NCAA where he won the top rookie in the NCAA (Tim Taylor Award), NCHC rookie of the year, NCHC best offensive defenseman, NCHC first all-star team, and the NCAA Championship all-tournament team. With his 36 points (11 goals and 25 assists), which not only led the NCAA in scoring but was actually the first time a defenseman had done that since Rob Cowie did so back in the 1988/89 season. It would seem that Perunovich has nothing left to prove at the college level and he could make the jump and sign his entry-level contract.
Perunvoich needs to use his skating ability to overcome his lack of size. He is a dynamic skater on both ends of the ice, where he is able to create offense through his poise and creativity. He also possesses a high hockey IQ where the vision he has is very special. This undersized two-way defender is able to command a game with his puck skills as he is able to get the puck out of the zone with ease, finding a teammate with a pass tape to tape. He’s a crafty passer who boasts the ability to thread the puck through traffic to find his teammates. These skills make him an even bigger threat on the rush with his speed and soft hands.
The lack of size could be seen by many as a disadvantage but he has used his small stature to his advantage. Perunovich is very shifty and is able to get out of checks, which is almost routine for a small defender. Even though he is more scanty than your typical defender, he is always more than willing to throw his body around, which shows that he has grit to his game. His hockey sense also allows Perunovich to spend minimal amount of time defending in his own zone. Perunovich has worked hard to bolster his strength in order to become a more stable and rigid d-man but at times he can get overpowered by bigger and stronger forwards and sometimes has problems clearing the zone. He has been able to get away with it at the NCAA level but it is unclear if that part of his game will be able to translate to the NHL level without him getting burned while doing so.
At the beginning of his career Perunovich played both his youth and high school hockey in Hibbing before eventually playing his hockey in the USHL with the Cedar Rapids Roughriders. This has been quite the place for the Blues to pick up talent as have already acquired Mitch Reinke, traded for Erik Foley, and now drafted Scott Perunoicvh and Hugh McGing, who all boast connections to the Roughriders.
In his first year of draft eligibility, which was the 2015/16 season, he was playing with Hibbing/Chisolm High School within the USHL circuit and he notched an impressive 13 goals and 55 assists in 25 games but when draft day came he failed to hear his game called. In the following campaign, he took his talents to the Roughriders where again he would put together a strong offensive season with six goals and 15 assists in 56 games but unfortunately he finished that same season with -35 rating in a very disappointing season for both him and the team. It wasn’t until the next season that he came into his own while in his rookie season with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, where he became a stellar player at both ends of the ice.
Perunovich definitely has the tools to play an up-tempo game. The Blues will be satisfied that he will be able to defend at the NHL level. There have been comparisons to Tory Krug (Boston Bruins), Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators), and Jared Spurgeon (Minnesota Wild). These players are relatively small and have enjoyed great NHL careers, to date. These players have shown you don’t need size to be effective. If Perunovich ends up like any of these players, it will be a fantastic pick. Smaller defensemen can survive in today NHL but it remains to be seen just how Perunovich can be at the next level.
The Blues just may have a steal here with this pick. There were some that felt that Perunovich was the most underrated defenseman at the 2018 draft. A decade ago, a player like Perunovich would not have gotten a look in the AHL, nevermind the NHL, and now is a legitimate prospect. With Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson both set to become unrestricted free agents next season, it may be that Perunovich may have a contribution to play sooner rather than later. However, for the next three years, it’s unlikely the Blues would be pressing for Perunovich to sign his entry-level contract straight away so he can go back to the Minnesota-Duluth and continue his development.
The Blues are showing now the willingness to draft smaller defensemen with offensive upside, moving along the current trend of puck moving and mobile d-men. The league has changed and with Perunovich standing out at the World Junior Championships and being the top defenceman in the NCAA, the Blues were obviously keen on him. If he can add some size in the next year, he could be ready to step into the AHL after his sophomore season. Perunovich boasts the potential to develop into a well-rounded defenseman who packs a punch at the NHL level. In time, we could just be seeing the tip of the iceberg in regards to Perunovich and his future as an elite NHL defenseman.