Scott Perunovich’s time has come. The prized defenseman prospect has been recalled by the Blues, who in turn have sent goalie Joel Hofer, forward Dakota Joshua and defenseman Calle Rosen back to the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League.
On a busy Monday, the Blues also placed veteran forward Kyle Clifford on waivers, according to general manager Doug Armstrong. That clears the way salary cap-wise to move Oskar Sundqvist from long-term injured reserve to the active roster.
Once Sundqvist is removed from LTIR, which is expected to be Tuesday, the Blues will have 23 players on their active roster again — it’s been a while since they could say that — with 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies.
Perunovich, 23, was tearing it up in Springfield. He assisted on both goals in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime victory over Lehigh Valley, giving him 18 assists on the season. He also has scored two goals this season, giving him 20 points in just 12 games to share the scoring lead in the AHL.
(Perunovich missed an Oct. 30 game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with a lower-body injury.)
“Scott’s been good,” Springfield coach Drew Bannister said Monday. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. ... You’ve seen him. There’s things that he does that are quite elite at this level. There’s not a lot of players at this level that can do what he can do with the puck and his ability to maneuver and escape pressure and make plays.”
Perunovich had at least one point in all 12 games he played for the Thunderbirds, who lead the Atlantic Division with a 9-2-2 record.
In particular, he has been a catalyst on the T-Birds’ power play. In fact, since Rosen was called up to the Blues, Perunovich has been pulling double-duty – working on both Springfield’s first and second power play units.
Rosen had run the second power play, and the Thunderbirds were down to five defensemen due to an injury to Tommy Cross, coupled with the Rosen call-up.
Although known primarily for his offensive prowess, Perunovich’s puck-moving ability should help the recently struggling Blues defense, which has had problems with zone exits among other things lately.
“We saw a concerted effort on the D side of things that he was trying to improve his game,” Bannister said. “Obviously, St. Louis is seeing the same thing, and that’s probably why he warranted a call-up.”
But after missing the entire 2020-21 season (other than training camp) with a shoulder injury that required surgery and with only 12 pro games under his belt, Bannister said there are still things Perunovich must figure out defensively.
“The last games he really played (until this season) that were meaningful were college games,” Bannister said. “It’s a tough adjustment for a defenseman at the American League level — not even the NHL level. The pace of play, the physicality and stuff.
“There’s NHL players that have been in the game for 10 years that are still trying to figure it out. So I don’t think it’s fair to think that Scotty’s going to figure it out in a span of (12) games at the American Hockey League level. There’s still a lot of improvement for him in that area of the game.
“But he does so many things so well when he has the puck on his stick. That’s part of defending, too. The more you have the puck on your stick and the more you can get the puck to your forwards quicker in certain situations, the less you have to defend. That’s part of how he defends.”
Perunovich nearly made the Blues roster out of training camp, including a strong preseason in which he recorded two assists in five games. Prior to that, some scouts felt he was the best player — or at least one of the best — at the five-team NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan.
In sending him down to Springfield, Armstrong and coach Craig Berube both indicated that they wanted him to get some seasoning — and plenty of minutes in all situations — at the AHL level before his inevitable callup.
In a media session last Wednesday, Armstrong indicated that Perunovich would be up with the Blues sooner rather than later. But the preference was to give him at least a little more time in the AHL to develop.
“He’s certainly not hurting his development by playing lots of minutes and playing games right now,” Armstrong said at the time. “He hasn’t played a lot of hockey over the last couple years. But if he continues like this, at some point you just have to tip your hat and give him the opportunity.”
That time is now, perhaps sooner than anticipated, although it’s unclear how long Perunovich will be with the Blues.
At the moment, he’s one of six game-ready defensemen, meaning he would play Tuesday against the visiting Arizona Coyotes. But Torey Krug and Niko Mikkola are off the COVID list. Both were scheduled to skate Monday, which was a day off for the remainder of the team in terms of practice.
Krug and Mikkola may need a few days of practice to get their legs and stamina back, but once they’re game-ready, the Blues will have two extra defensemen — or one more than normal.
As for Clifford, he was in the second year of a two-year contract with a cap hit of $1 million per year. According to Puckpedia, the Blues needed to free up $907,000 of cap space to remove Sundqvist from LTIR after sending down Hofer, Joshua and Rosen and recalling Perunovich.
Cutting ties with Clifford gets them there, by about $93,000 — practically loose change in an $81.5 million cap limit.
Clfifford was a healthy scratch for Sunday’s 5-4 loss to Edmonton and had missed the previous six games after being placed on the COVID list. All told, he played in only two games this season, logging an assist in the Oct. 23 home opener against Los Angeles.
The addition of James Neal and the development of Klim Kostin made it tough for Clifford to get in on the ice. He appeared in 50 games last season with the Blues; he had four goals, three assists and was minus-5.