Blues Should Protect Perunovich in Trades

Until their embarrassing 7-1 loss against the Calgary Flames on Monday, the St. Louis Blues were on an incredible hot streak and climbing the power rankings as one of the top 10 teams in the league. Assuming, for the moment, that the disaster in Alberta was just a bump in the road, the Blues are likely to be buyers at the trade deadline. In particular, they are expected to be shopping for defensemen and have been linked to names like Ben Chiarot and Jakob Chychrun.

Related: Blues Can’t Afford to Get in on Jakob Chychrun Sweepstakes

When general manager Doug Armstrong is on the phone with his counterparts in other markets, they are certain to want a few key assets from the Blues. The team’s first-round pick in the upcoming draft will be a popular demand. Recent first-round forward draftees Jake Neighbours and Zachary Bolduc may also be up for discussion. But one name is certain to fetch plenty of interest: 2018 second-round draft pick Scott Perunovich, who may be the team’s top prospect. In this article, we’ll examine why the young blueliner will be much in demand before explaining why Armstrong should be extremely hesitant to trade him away.

Hobey Baker Pedigree

Perunovich joins a long list of defensemen coming into the league with a tremendous NCAA pedigree in recent seasons. He played three seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) Bulldogs, and in each of the first two, his team won the NCAA Championship. He may well have completed the threepeat had the COVID-19 pandemic not brought a premature end to his final college season.

Scott Perunovich (Terry Carite Norton-UMD Athletics)
Scott Perunovich (Terry Carite Norton-UMD Athletics)

Though he was passed over in his initial year of eligibility, Armstrong and the Blues were so excited to draft Perunovich in the second round of the 2018 Draft, they brought a sweater with his name stitched on it to the stage. That’s a rarity for anyone beyond the first round. But Perunovich paid off their faith in him by putting together two more phenomenal seasons at UMD, as well as by signing with the Blues at the end of his time there, rather than returning another season and pursuing college free agency.

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Overall, Perunovich collected 105 points in 115 games in college. He was plus-49 in his three seasons as well. But his true individual triumph came in his final season, when, with 40 points in 34 games, he won the NCAA’s top prize for a hockey player, the Hobey Baker Award. It quickly became apparent that the Blues had committed highway robbery in the second round, as despite his diminutive stature, Perunovich clearly possessed the speed, skill, and hockey sense to take over at the next level.

Early NHL Success

Perunovich’s transition to the NHL wasn’t immediate, especially due to a shoulder injury he suffered during the 2020-21 season that cost him most of the campaign. But entering the 2021-22 season, he clearly had a mission to prove his value and earn a spot. He was a breakout superstar at the preseason Traverse City Prospect Tournament, where he served as the Blues’ captain. He played well in the preseason, too, and the team waited as long as possible to send him down. But after 20 points in 12 games at the American Hockey League level, and with plenty of injuries, the team had no choice but to call him up. Though he has just six points in his first 19 games, there is some very good news about his early returns: he’s performing well in his own end.

Scott Perunovich RAPM Chart (Courtesy: evolving-hockey)
Scott Perunovich RAPM Chart (Courtesy: evolving-hockey)

As the chart above indicates, Perunovich has actually struggled offensively at even strength, perhaps due to his deployment on the third line alongside Robert Bortuzzo. But the purple bars indicate that he is performing above league average on defense, with his expected goals against per 60 (xGA/60) and Corsi against per 60 (CA/60), a measure of shot suppression, both showing early promise. That is impressive because the concern about Perunovich before his debut was that his defensive play might be a liability. Clearly, that isn’t the case so far. Moreover, his early returns on the power play suggest that he could become a star there when he receives more time.

Fox, Makar, and Hughes: a Prolific Profile

At the risk of heaping too much praise on a player with just 19 games under his belt, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between Perunovich and recent rising stars on defense like Adam Fox, Cale Makar, and Quinn Hughes. Let’s be clear that I’m not suggesting Perunovich will reach their level. But their profiles as players are extremely similar. All three are undersized defensemen by the typical standard. All three had standout college careers. All three are fantastic skaters with sky-high hockey IQ. Makar and Fox shoot right-handed, while Hughes and Perunovich shoot left; however, Perunovich actually prefers to play on the right side, where he spent most of his collegiate career.

Again, Perunovich has a long way to go to begin to truly resemble any of those players at the NHL level. But he certainly seems to be built in the prototype of the modern superstar defenseman. That alone should make Armstrong extremely hesitant to trade him. The GM who gives away a Cale Makar-type defender in a trade will not be quick to live that down. But the biggest reason to keep hold of Perunovich is internal.

Blues Need to Think Long Term on Defense

Right now, the reality is that the Blues defense needs significant help. They are lacking identity, and there is no simple solution in the offing. That might, at first blush, seem like an argument for trading Perunovich, but it’s actually quite the opposite. At present, the Blues have three defenders making $6.5 million per season for at least the next six seasons. But the defense is struggling, ranking bottom 10 in both expected goals against (xGA) and high danger chances against (HDCA). There isn’t one defenseman who can right that ship, and if there is, no team is standing by looking to trade him.

Related: Blues’ 2021-22 Midseason Player Grades

Meanwhile, Perunovich is a few things that a trade target likely will not be: he is young, and he is cost-controlled. Even Chychrun, who is so popular because of his contract, is still owed $4.6 million per season. Can the Blues really afford to spend $24.1 million on their top-four defenders and be bottom-half in results? of course not.

Perunovich hasn’t blossomed into a superstar yet. He shares a lot of attributes in common with Torey Krug, and he hasn’t yet earned head coach Craig Berube’s trust, which might make him look expendable. But the Blues should be careful to protect him in any trade that isn’t bringing a long-term difference-maker on defense back in return. And even in that deal, they should try to guard their top blueline prospect. He is young and cost-controlled. He mirrors the profile of some of the league’s top young defensemen. And the Blues would be wise to keep him and try to work him into their top four, rather than trading him for an option that cannot single-handedly fix their defense.

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