Changing Gears

UMD’s Perunovich’s Play An Example Of Hockey’s Shift To Speed And Skill

If patience is a virtue, then Scott Perunovich knows it well.


His patience with the puck is on display on a nightly basis in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, along with his uncanny ability to locate open passing lanes and thread the needle with tape-to-tape passes.


Despite these in-demand skills, Perunovich’s patience off the ice was tested the past few summers when he was passed over not once, but twice in the NHL Draft. He didn’t latch on with an NHL organization until last summer, when the St. Louis Blues picked him in the 2nd round with the 45th selection.


The selection came on the heels of a freshman season in which the Hibbing, Minn., native played a big role in helping the University of Minnesota Duluth win a national championship. 


His 36 points, including 11 goals, in 42 games earned him the Tim Taylor Award as the NCAA’s top collegiate rookie, as well as being dubbed a First Team All-American.


That will get you noticed.


Accolades like that helped allay any concerns the Blues may have had about the 5-foot-9 blueliner’s size and his ability to make an impact on a game.


“It was a relief,” Perunovich said. “My first year I was in high school so I probably got a bit too hyped up for the draft to think that I might have a shot. It was just a huge honor to be finally selected in my third year.”


While the Blues are certainly keeping a close eye on the sophomore blueliner’s development, Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin has enjoyed his front row seat to Perunovich’s progression as a player. The two actually share a hometown, both from a small town on the Mesabi Iron Range that is roughly 75 miles from campus.


“No. 1, his hockey IQ is really high,” Sandelin stated earlier this year on our podcast. “He has tremendous instincts and feel for the game. For a smaller player, he’s very elusive and can control a game, offensively he’s dynamite, as evidence he led our team in scoring last year and he’s doing the same this year.”


Perunovich currently has 27 points this season, 24 of them helpers, his point total tied for the team lead with forward Justin Richards.


“He’s like a fourth forward out there, which we want him to be,” Sandelin said. “We want him to be a big part of our offense and to be involved coming up the rink into the zone.”


Those skills have been a particularly key asset on the UMD power play when you can have someone with a forward’s skills, smooth skating, slick passing and a solid shot, while also possessing the defensive acumen to defend against any penalty killing team’s counter attack. 


The NHL player the left-handed rearguard looks up to most is Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, who possesses a similar skillset and build to Perunovich. Krug’s 28 power-play points trail only Keith Yandle’s 32 among NHL defenseman this season.


Minnesota Duluth, who are 21-9-2 and currently ranked 3rd in the USA Hockey Magazine/USA Today Men’s College Hockey Poll, have the 9th best power play in the NCAA, operating at a 23.89 percent clip.


Those skills also helped Perunovich earn a spot on the power play with the U.S. National Junior Team in 2018, notching a goal and two assists in seven games. The fact that Perunovich made the team – after not being invited to the WJC Summer Showcase – illustrates how much his stock has risen. His experience in Buffalo, where the U.S. won bronze, gave him an extra boost as well.


“Confidence-wise it was huge,” he said. “Just making me realize my ability. To end up making the team at the very end, to make cuts over some really good players who could’ve been on the team was definitely big for me.”

 Perunovich scored a goal in the outdoor game against Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, a contest that was mired with heavy snowfall.Perunovich scored a goal in the outdoor game against Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, a contest that was mired with heavy snowfall.

That confidence will come in handy as the Bulldogs look to become the first school to repeat as national champions since Denver in 2004 and 2005. 


“I think both teams are really good,” Perunovich said. “I think this year there’s a little bit more confidence here. We know how good we are and we’ve started off strongly already. 


“We have a lot of good freshman who have come into college and haven’t missed a step. It’s great to have those guys in here.”


When someone possesses the talent that Perunovich holds, the question sometimes shifts to how long the player will remain on campus.


Just a sophomore, the defenseman has time to develop and try to add size and strength to his frame, something he realized when taking part in the Blues’ development camp this past summer, which served as a learning experience.


“The biggest takeaway was that you’re definitely going to have to handle yourself on and off the ice as a pro already,” Perunovich said. 


“I know a lot of guys are experienced there, bigger and stronger and ready for the next level. I think it just makes you realize where you’re at, you might get there and know that you’re not good enough for the next level, so it just makes you work harder. 


One aspect of the game that will be crucial to becoming a pro is the ability to defend while in his own zone. However, Sandelin has stated how impressed he’s been with Perunovich’s game when he hasn’t been dazzling in the offensive zone.


“I think the one thing last year that he did really well was he defended really well,” Sandelin stated. “I think this year he’s carried that over. He can play both sides of the puck, but his hockey IQ, instincts and smarts are really good.”


The surging Blues, currently with 74 points and climbing, are looking like a safe bet to make the playoffs. St. Louis is tied for the third-most points (19-7-2, 40) since the turn of the calendar year.


Despite the hot streak, St. Louis’ power-play has stalled and ranks 24th in the NHL since Jan. 1. If the struggles continue, could Perunovich be pried out of school to help aid the unit at the tail end of the regular season or in the playoffs once Minnesota Duluth’s season ends?

 How many more years will Perunovich be terrorizing opposing NCHC teams from the point?How many more years will Perunovich be terrorizing opposing NCHC teams from the point?

It might be too early for that question to be posed, but it’s worth considering as Perunovich continues to raise his game. He is currently ranked 9th among defenseman in the NCAA with 24 assists, but knows there is still work to be done before he feels ready to make the leap to the next level. 


“Everything I think,” Perunovich humbly says. “Strength is probably a big one for me, [and] my shot. Those are probably my top two [needs of improvement]. Just getting faster, stronger and making the right plays all the time, trying to limit my mistakes.”


That and winning another national championship for the maroon and gold school as an encore.

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