In the National Hockey League, having too many good, young defensemen is rarely a problem. But in a salary-cap strapped league, is it possible to have too much of a good thing? St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong will have to answer that in the coming months as he evaluates the futures of Vince Dunn, a pending restricted free agent (RFA), and incoming prospect and top college player Scott Perunovich.
Dunn and Perunovich are cut from similar cloth, as both are young, puck-controlling, undersized left-handed defensemen (LHD). It might make sense to keep only one of he pair longterm, as Dunn’s coming contract extension is sure to include a hefty raise from whatever team signs him. But Armstrong needs to think about the future, even for a team in the height of a Stanley Cup window. He must find a way to keep both players.
There’s no question Dunn is one of the more under-appreciated young weapons in the Blues’ arsenal. The 35 point career-high he posted in the 2018-19 season is misleading, as his minutes are limited due to the depth the team has had on defense overall. Still, Dunn has all the capabilities of a potential power play quarterback. He is a keen visionary on-ice who makes passes many of his peers cannot.
Before the COVID-19 Pandemic shortened the 2019-20 NHL season, Dunn had posted very strong possession numbers, with a 55.5 Corsi for percentage (CF%) and a 6.3 CF% relative (CF% rel). This suggests that the Blues possessed the puck significantly better with Dunn on the ice than with him off of it at even strength.
Corsica Hockey uses an advanced formula to calculate a rating for every player, combining various hockey advanced statistics. Dunn’s rating came out to 76.03, placing him in a tie for 10th. Highly-celebrated defenseman Jaccob Slavin is just ahead of him, and his teammate Colton Parayko is slightly behind. Many fans see Parayko as one of the most indispensable players on the team. But according to Corsica, he is slightly less valuable than Dunn, which should give Blues fans perspective on just how important he is.
Of course, there would be no question of potentially letting Dunn get away if it weren’t for the prospects of Perunovich. The recent Hobey Baker Award winner has a game eerily similar to Dunn’s. He collected 40 points, all but six of them assists, in 34 games before the NCAA season was canceled, and he looked poised to help lead the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Bulldogs to their third straight championship.
The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler recently ranked Perunovich 30th amongst NHL-drafted prospects, and he had high praise for the defenseman: “the 2020 Hobey Baker winner has carved out a niche as one of the more poised, patient D prospects in the world” (from “Wheeler: the Top 50 drafted NHL prospect ranking, 2020 edition,” The Athletic NHL, July 6, 2020).
Corey Pronman, their Senior NHL Prospects Writer, was arguably even more complimentary in February before Perunovich signed his entry-level contract. “Among all the drafted prospects [that could become free agents], Perunovich is clearly the most talented… [he] has an elite hockey brain, great skill, and great mobility. He may not be the tallest defenseman, but he still projects as an NHL player because his hockey IQ and skating make him good enough defensively” (from “Pronman: Top free agents from college hockey, major junior and Europe,” The Athletic NHL, Feb. 27, 2020).
There’s no question that Perunovich is a major part of the Blues’ future. And he does play a very similar role to Dunn. In a cap-strapped league, that might be reason enough to dispense of one or the other. But Armstrong is not likely to do that unless forced to, and he certainly should not.
Strength on the Left Side
The Blues have three good-to-elite defensemen on the right side in Alex Pietrangelo, Parayko, and Justin Faulk. We’ve already made the case for why it’s likely Pietrangelo will return, and Faulk certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon with the long extension he signed after Armstrong acquired him. Parayko might be traded eventually if there is no hope of re-signing him, but Armstrong’s history indicates he will delay that as long as possible.
By comparison, the Blues are notably weak on the left side. They shored that up somewhat with the acquisition and subsequent extension of Marco Scandella. But behind him, they have scanty reinforcements. The sudden loss of Jay Bouwmeester was jarring, but his future in the NHL would have been short even if healthy. Carl Gunnarsson is a depth piece at this point in his career, and while prospects like Jake Walman, Niko Mikkola, and Tyler Tucker show promise, they are lower-tier and farther away than either Dunn or Perunovich longterm.
Therefore, the two young puck-moving defensemen have an extended future in St. Louis if Armstrong can make the salary cap work. That will be a tricky proposition, but there are few general managers as skilled at navigating salary cap restrictions as he is. Contracts like those of Alex Steen, Tyler Bozak, and Jake Allen make more logical cap sacrifices than Dunn. Even after an extension, he should be affordable for a top-four defenseman.
The Blues’ best road forward is a top-six that includes each of Pietrangelo, Parayko, and Faulk on the right side and Dunn, Perunovich, and Scandella on the left side. Many teams will not be able to follow their best road forward in the wake of the flattened salary cap, but Armstrong has shown a preternatural ability to make the numbers work in the past, and there’s every reason to believe he will do so again here.