With Minnesota Duluth’s season cut a month short and the current NHL season suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hibbing’s Scott Perunovich found himself stuck in a holding pattern the last couple of weeks.
The St. Louis Blues were itching to finally sign their 2018 second-round draft pick and the Bulldogs junior defenseman wanted an opportunity to play in the NHL this year if the season did eventually resume.
So the two sides got creative this week when they agreed to a two-year entry-level deal that was announced by the team on Friday.
According to Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic, if the NHL does indeed resume the 2019-20 season, Perunovich’s two-year deal will go into effect this year and he can play right away for the Blues. If the rest of the 2019-20 NHL season is canceled, Perunovich’s two-year deal will begin like everyone else’s with the 2020-21 season.
“He’s an all-star out there every game. Game in and game out, he’s the one making plays” said Perunovich’s defensive partner the last three seasons, senior Nick Wolff. “That’s why we had so much success the past couple years because of him. He’s deserved every accolade he’s gotten.”
There has been no indication from the NHL it will resume operations anytime soon, however, there was still a sense of urgency — at least in the Blues’ camp — to get a deal done sooner rather than later with Perunovich.
While most college players who get drafted have to wait until after their senior season to become free agents, that’s not the case with Perunovich. Because he was drafted in his 20-year-old year, he was eligible to become a free agent on June 1 of this year.
Free agency never appeared to be an option for Perunovich, though. The Blues were in constant contact with him since taking him after his freshman season with the Bulldogs, 45th overall in that year’s draft. Blues’ director of player development Tim Taylor, development coach Glen Wesley and director of player recruitment Keith Tkachuk were constant presences at UMD games throughout the country the past two seasons.
General manager Doug Armstrong was at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo, Michigan in late February to watch Perunovich and the Bulldogs take on Western Michigan. Perunovich said that left a strong impression on him.
“When Doug Armstrong came to Western and talked to me after, that meant a ton knowing that they care to make the trip out there,” Perunovich said.
Perunovich finished tied for 10th in the nation in scoring and second among defensemen with six goals and 34 assists in 34 games this season. His 19 assists and 22 points on the power play tied for most in the nation this year.
In the last two weeks he picked up three NCHC awards, including Player of the Year, and is a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. He was the national rookie of the year in 2017-18 before the Blues drafted him, a three-time All-NCHC first-team pick and two-time All-American, with a third All-American honor likely on the way.
“He’s a special player,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said last week when Perunovich was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker. “He’s got tremendous hockey IQ, instincts and vision. Offensively he’s like a fourth forward out there. He can change a game and we’ve seen that in his time here.”
Perunovich could have signed with the Blues last spring after helping UMD win back-to-back national championships as a freshman and sophomore, but like many of his teammates, he decided to come back for his junior year to pursue a historic third-straight title.
Despite the three-peat getting squashed by coronavirus concerns, Perunovich said coming back to UMD was the right decision after battling a back injury for the later half of 2018-19. The injury put things into perspective and the staff at UMD really taught him how to take better care of his body, he said.
“Taking care of my body and making sure I was 100 percent, that made everything click more,” said Perunovich, who despite playing a shortened season scored a collegiate-high 40 points. “I was more clear and not worried about something going out or whether I was going to miss a game.”
Perunovich is the second Bulldog, and first underclassman, to sign an NHL contract since the season was canceled due to a coronavirus. Wolff signed last week with the Boston Bruins. His contract won’t begin until the 2020-21 season.
Originally thought of as an odd-couple on the blue line with Wolff standing 6-foot-5 tall and Perunovich just 5-10, Wolff said he and Perunovich have become “best buddies” the last three seasons. But he wouldn’t mind dropping the gloves the first time they meet in the NHL
“I would love that,” Wolff said with a laugh. “It’s about time it happens on opposite teams."
This story was updated at 4:55 p.m. on March 27 with additional comments and information. It was originally posted at 4:02 p.m. March 27.