Blues Add Major Reinforcements in Sundqvist, Perunovich

The St. Louis Blues hit their first rough stretch of the season, going 0-2-1 in their last three, losing both games of a weekend back-to-back after heartbreaking last-minute goals against. Though the team won’t make any excuses, COVID protocols and injuries have left them severely shorthanded. Top six forward Brayden Schenn is on the shelf due to an injury, Torey Krug, who had been playing his best hockey with the Blues, has missed time due to COVID (as had Brandon Saad and Ryan O’Reilly before him), and the COVID unavailability of backup goalie Ville Husso led to 21-year-old AHL goaltender Joel Hofer, whom no one expected to sniff the NHL this season, starting Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the top teams in the league.

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Entering the second half of a month in which they will play 8 games in 15 days, the Blues are in need of a shot in the arm. And after a series of moves today, they are prepared to receive it with the arrival of at least two players. On Monday, they announced the call-up of top prospect Scott Perunovich and made roster moves that signal the likely return of Oskar Sundqvist. Together, those moves will represent a major shift for St. Louis.

Perunovich is Ready

Sometimes, a prospect forces his way into your plans before you might otherwise be ready for him to. That could be the case with Perunovich. Recent comments by Blues general manager Doug Armstrong indicate that the team might have preferred to take a longer, more patient approach with the former Hobey Baker Award winner, particularly after Perunovich missed last season with a shoulder injury. But his stellar play and the team’s defensive shortcomings left Armstrong with no other choice.

Scott Perunovich (Terry Carite Norton-UMD Athletics)
Scott Perunovich during his time with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the NCAA (Terry Carite Norton-UMD Athletics)

Currently, Perunovich is tied for first overall in points in the American Hockey League. The left-handed defenseman, who has played much of his collegiate career on his offhand side, has 20 points in his first 12 professional games, looking absolutely dominant with the Blues’ new AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds. They, in turn, are leading their division with 20 points in 13 games. The mature 23-year-old defenseman was one of the team’s final cuts after a strong preseason and an incredible prospect tournament in Traverse City, MI. With his red-hot start in Massachusetts, he left the Blues no choice.

Is Perunovich What the Blues Need?

There will be those that question whether Perunovich — an undersized, offensive defenseman — provides what the Blues need. But, as Edmonton’s crushing game-winning goal from Sunday demonstrates, even Colton Parayko has shown mind-numbing defensive lapses this season. Perunovich will excel at puck control, something the Blues desperately need more of: they currently rank 21st in the league in Corsi for percentage (CF%) and 22nd in expected goals for percentage (xGF%). He will be rivaled only by Jordan Kyrou in speed and skating prowess. He is a truly dynamic player. And, to give a more direct answer to the challenges about his potential fit with the team: the Blues defense quite frankly isn’t good enough to ask where Perunovich will fit.

The Blues defense lacks high-level shot suppression skills from any individual defenseman. According to metrics from evolving-hockey, only Colton Parayko and Robert Bortuzzo are above average in expected goals against (xGA), and Marco Scandella, whom Perunovich will most likely eventually replace in the top six, is well over one standard deviation below average in that category. In plain English, the Blues are not good at preventing high-quality chances against their goaltender, and Scandella, occupying a spot in the top four that Perunovich will one-day claim, is particularly dreadful at it.

No one should get distracted by Perunovich’s size. He is a game-changing defenseman in the mold of recent NCAA-to-NHL speed/skill standouts like Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, and Adam Fox. Of course, no one is saying he’ll match those players’ NHL success, but there should be few concerns about his viability at the highest level.

Clifford Waived, Sundqvist Finally Healthy?

Not to be overlooked with the excitement of Perunovich’s arrival, the Blues’ decision to waive veteran forward Kyle Clifford likely signals that utility center Oskar Sundqvist is ready to return. The Boden, Sweden native suffered a torn ACL last season and has been recovering ever since. All evidence points to waiving Clifford as a salary cap move to clear room to take Sundqvist off of the long-term injured reserve (LTIR).

Related: Blues 2020-21 Report Cards: Kyle Clifford

At his best, Sundqvist is a dynamic forward on a steal of a contract. Like Ivan Barbashev, he can play up and down the lineup, at center and on the wing, anywhere from the fourth line to the first line, on either the penalty kill or the power play. Most teams would do anything to have one player like that on an affordable contract, and the Blues have two. Sundqvist has shown offensive upside in the past, but the Blues will likely rely on him for his defensive acumen, especially as he regains his footing and confidence early on.

Oskar Sundqvist Ivan Barbashev St. Louis Blues
Oskar Sundqvist and Ivan Barbashev, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sundqvist’s arrival could not come at a better time for a team hampered by absences. Since the organization assigned Dakota Joshua to Springfield, the team only has 11 eligible forwards on the roster who were healthy for Sunday’s game against the Oilers. So, although the Blues have not yet announced Sundqvist’s return (such an announcement likely wouldn’t come until late Tuesday morning or early Tuesday afternoon), it seems likely that either he or Schenn or both will be ready to play the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night.

Blues Finally at Full Strength

Though it may take a few days for all those pieces to play in the same lineup, with Perunovich called up, Sundqvist and, hopefully, Husso, Schenn, and Krug returning, the Blues will soon be at “full strength” for the first time this season, barring any further setbacks. It’s an encouraging sign, especially considering what they have accomplished while shorthanded. With some very winnable games coming up in the November schedule, it is an ideal team for the organization to get in shape and start firing on all cylinders. With Perunovich and Sundqvist in the fold, they are likely to look more stable and more threatening at both ends of the ice.

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