When any team enters training camp (with the possible exception of an expansion team like the Seattle Kraken), they typically have 19-21 roster spots pretty well decided. Healthy, veteran players on one-way contracts have to do a lot to lose out on their presumed role, and there are very few spots left for young players or older players on professional tryouts (PTOs) to compete for.
Such is certainly the case with the St. Louis Blues, who entered the season with all but the last few spots on their roster clearly accounted for (although general manager Doug Armstrong gave himself more flexibility with Saturday’s trade of Zach Sanford to the Ottawa Senators). Therefore, young players like Klim Kostin, newcomer Logan Brown, and last year’s first-round pick Jake Neighbours, along with veterans on PTOs like James Neal (who scored a hat trick in the inaugural preseason game) and Michael Frolik have to show a lot to earn one of those few remaining opportunities. In fact, teams leverage the scarcity of roster spots to demand the most from those players, who are expected to fight for their place in the NHL.
But the Blues have one young player who they need to look at a little differently this training camp. Former Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich shouldn’t just be given every chance to make the roster; the team should keep a spot open for him, and plan to rely on him heavily this season.
Hobey Baker Career at Minnesota-Duluth
Perunovich is the best player currently in the Blues’ prospect pipeline, despite only costing them a mid-second round pick in 2018. He proved his value in a remarkable collegiate career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he scored 105 points in 115 games and won two consecutive NCAA Championships (in 2017-18 and 2018-19). In the 2019-20 season, he notched 40 points in 34 games and won both the Hobey Baker Award, celebrating the NCAA’s top collegiate player, and the Jim Johansson Award, given to USA Hockey’s College Player of the Year. UMD might have been primed to win a third consecutive NCAA championship, but the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short.
Despite his standout play, NHL teams passed over Perunovich in two drafts and he even fell to the middle of the second round in a third. But the Blues were so eager to draft him at that juncture that they brought a team jersey with his name already stitched on it to the podium for him to wear (a rarity beyond the first round). Their excitement proved justified over the following two seasons of collegiate play, and he paid off their faith in him by signing with the Blues rather than playing out his collegiate career and entering free agency. Entering the 2020-21 season, fans were excited to see him fight for a spot and play in the AHL. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery kept him out for the season. But in his first opportunity to shake off the rust, he went much further and wowed evaluators at the NHL’s prospect tournament in Michigan.
Perunovich Wows in Traverse City
Last weekend, the Blues traveled to Traverse City, along Lake Michigan, where the Detroit Red Wings host an annual prospect tournament ahead of their team’s training camp. The Blues are a regular visitor to the competition, but since collegiate seasons have begun by the time the tournament starts, Perunovich had never gotten an opportunity to participate. In his first chance, he left no questions about his tremendous ability.
Perunovich scored five points in three games, but he looked like the most dominant player on the ice virtually at all times. His puck control and vision were off the charts, he skated around defenders and moved through the zone with ease, and his passes and shots were equally crisp. I have been in attendance at three consecutive Traverse City Prospect Tournaments, seeing a list of blue-chip youngsters including Kaapo Kakko, Andrei Svechnikov, Adam Boqvist, Miro Heiskanen, and Kirby Dach, but in that time, only Adam Fox has looked as consistently superlative as Scott Perunovich. Of course, he has a long way to go to catch the Norris Trophy winner Fox, but their pedigrees (smaller, puck-moving, experienced, college defensemen) align closely. And if my witness isn’t convincing, other experts agreed.
In his Traverse City wrapup article, The Athletic‘s Scott Wheeler spoke glowingly of the Blues’ defenseman: “If there was an award for the best play in the tournament, Perunovich (who played both sides throughout I think it should be noted) would have had my vote… Nobody could take the puck off him and when they tried he’d just step past them and create into the space they chased out of… He sliced up traffic [and] he had the puck on a string” (from ‘Traverse City NHL prospect tournament notes, quotes and standouts,’ from The Athletic NHL, Sep. 21, 2021). Just how impressive was Perunovich’s performance? Wheeler summed it up nicely: “He shouldn’t be in ‘has to earn it’ territory for me. He should be ‘we have to find a way to make room for him, even at the expense of a veteran’ territory.”
Perunovich Belongs in the Blues Top Four
That last line rings loudly, and conveniently, the Blues shouldn’t struggle to find a spot for the dynamic blueliner. Their defense is top-heavy, with Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, and the recently extended Colton Parayko clearly in top-four roles. Behind them, though, the remaining defenders are largely indistinguishable and largely replacement level. There is no question that Perunovich, given a whole season to mature as an NHL player, has a much higher ceiling than veterans Robert Bortuzzo and Marco Scandella and he has a brighter future than younger defenders Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman.
With Perunovich’s versatility (a left-hander who has played extensively on the right side), he could form a partnership with any of the top three defenders with whom he finds chemistry. Until then, he can get his feet wet on the third line, but the team shouldn’t delay long: there’s little question that the college standout belongs in a prominent role on their team.
Berube Needs to Be Patient
Given his decision not to make any defensive additions during the offseason, Armstrong may well plan to utilize Perunovich on the team’s main roster. But head coach Craig Berube has to resist his tendency to quickly write off young players that make mistakes. Perunovich is incredibly promising, but like any player transitioning to the NHL, he will have a learning curve. If the team bears with the process, Perunovich could be a major difference-maker towards the end of the season, much like Robert Thomas was in the team’s Stanley Cup Championship season. But they have to offer him the same confidence they extended to Thomas. And that means giving him a roster spot right out of the gate to enter the season.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.