Monday, September 26, 2022

With Scandella down, opportunity knocks for Mikkola, Perunovich

Defensemen get chance to thrive, earn more opportunity on Blues' 
blue line with veteran out for at least next six months due to injury

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- For the Blues, a situation has presented itself where someone's bad fortune turns out to be opportunity for another.

In the case -- or cases -- of defensemen Niko Mikkola and Scott Perunovich, opportunity knocks, and it all stems from the injury to veteran Marco Scandella.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues defenseman Niko Mikkola (second from left) defends a play Monday in
an exhibition game at Dallas, a 4-0 Blues win.

When the Blues announced Sept. 20 that Scandella would miss at least the next six months after surgery on his right hip joint stemming from a training incident, it thrust Mikkola and Perunovich into the spotlight.

Mikkola already put himself on the map of the Blues' defensive corps with his coming out party last season, but he's in line to be even a bigger force, all 6-foot-4, 209 pounds of him, and Perunovich has been touted as the next big -- well not in size terms but for his play -- offensive weapon after winning the Hobey Baker Award in 2020.

And take it from someone who got the very same chance to thrust himself into the foray and forge an NHL career for himself, as defenseman Torey Krug did with the Boston Bruins late in the 2011-12 season when Adam McQuaid was injured late in the season. 

Unfortunate timing for one could be good timing for another.

"To be honest, that's how I started my career," Krug said. "Any time you something like that happen, you feel for the guy that goes down. Scandy's a big part of this locker room, for this team and you don't want to see that, but now it's a chance for someone to step up and get more ice time and create a spot for themselves in this league. That's how I got my start and try to help those guys through that."

Mikkola, who played big minutes last season and averaged 16:59 in 54 regular-season games playing mostly with Colton Parayko in a shutdown role, really asserted himself in the postseason against Minnesota and Colorado and played an average of 15:39.

The coaching staff didn't hesitate putting the big Finn on the ice against the likes of Kirill Kaprizov, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar.

"It's a bit of confidence when you can see you play like pretty good hockey against top teams in the playoffs like Minny and Colorado," Mikkola said. "I felt good in the playoffs. That was good for me for this season. It's still just a memory right now and I would like to do it all over again and get right back at it.

"There's one D less now and we hate to see it too. It would be nice to get Scandy back to the lineup too, but it's of course opportunity to get more ice time for me too and maybe more PK time. Try to take it and work hard."

Mikkola was a solid penalty killer on a Blues unit that was fifth in the NHL last season; he had 81 blocked shots on the season and 109 hits using his strength to play a more physical role to provide in an area the Blues used to be exemplary in.

"I think he has been improving year to year," Blues coach Craig Berube said of Mikkola. "I think the development for me is just puck play, coming out of your own end, making plays, breakout plays, things like that, seeing the ice a little bit better. He actually does a good job offensively in the offensive zone. He attacks at the right time, gets his shot through, things like that. Coming out of his own end, he can work on it just improving his puck play there, making subtle, little plays and things like that.

"He was a good penalty killer for us with his stick and big body. He's aggressive. He takes time and space away from opponents. Every time he goes at somebody, you know you're going to get hit. He finishes his checks hard and he's difficult to play against. That's what it boils down to."

What it boils down to for Perunovich is a matter of staying healthy. 

Since the Blues drafted him in the second round in 2018, Perunovich has been relegated to just 19 regular-season games due to a shoulder injury in that forced him to miss the 2020-21 season, then he missed a large chunk of last season after having wrist surgery before returning to the playoffs.

"Very frustrating. I didn't really have any real injuries in my career, but these two injuries just kind of happened," Perunovich said. "It's definitely frustrating, but you learn from these things and that's life and that's what happens in this business. You'd just like to take as much as you can from it and learn to be better and stronger now and hopefully you take care of your body more so that stuff doesn't happen.

"I feel 100 percent. I've had a lot of good trainers and rehabilitation during this whole time, so I'm feeling great and hopefully I can stay that way. 

"For sure you always want to come in 100 percent and give yourself a chance in camp and not really take anything for granted and do the best you can and set yourself up to be successful."

The intention going in before the Scandella news for the Blues was to perhaps carry eight defenseman on the opening night roster, including Krug, Parayko, Justin Faulk, Nick Leddy, Robert Bortuzzo, Scandella, Mikkola and Perunovich. Two would sit on any given night if everyone was healthy.

They could always still carry eight d-men, which would vault Calle Rosen as the likely eighth defenseman into the mix, but Mikkola and Perunovich are now considered Nos. 6 and 7 in no particular order, and depending on if they perhaps each are in the lineup, could be Nos. 5 and 6.

"It opens a job up," Berube said. "Obviously you don't like to lose the player right before training camp, but it is what it is and someone else is going to get an opportunity."

Mikkola hopes to continue to ascend as a strong, physical and even chip in on the offensive side making the plays in smaller areas of the ice. That's where he will make his strides.

"I feel like I'm still pretty young," Mikkola said. "I don't feel like I'm too old for this sport. Every year I try to be better and come prepared for the camps and the next season. That's my goal every year and try to get more ice time, more a place on the team.

"The first couple passes and just a simple game. I think my defense is there. There's some areas like when you don't have that much space, you need to make good a first pass. I think that's about it. Maybe I can do a little bit more on offense too."

And for Perunovich, who had six assists in 19 regular-season games last season and another four helpers in seven playoff games as a power-play specialist quarterbacking that unit, the goal is to improve and develop more of a 5-on-5 game to show the coaching staff he can handle all situations, despite being smaller in stature at 5-10, 175.

"That was my main focus, more 5-on-5 and d-zone positioning-wise," Perunovich said. "I'm working with someone here too, going over film and kind of fixing some holes in my game. That's starting in the offensive zone that helped me transition into my d-zone game. I think's definitely going to be a different year 5-on-5 and I'd like to contribute more and affect the game.

"Just gap control, skating forward. If I can close on a gap 10 feet earlier, than maybe I can create a turnover earlier and get a puck going in the offensive direction. If I just basically play better coming out of the zone, I can create more offensive and play less defense.

"These guys are the fastest and best players in the world. I think I've gotten away with it throughout my career just with my offensive ability, but that's not the case anymore. I'm learning that more and more and trying to make that a staple of my game."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Scott Perunovich (middle) moves the puck up ice last season
during the second round of the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche.

Scandella will be reevaluated in six months, and there's no telling or guarantee he will even return in the regular season or postseason. If Mikkola and Perunovich want to make a mark on this franchise, the opportunity presented to them here will be as big a chance as any.

"Health is obviously important for (Perunovich)," Berube said. "He's had some bad luck, but definitely he's one of the guys that we're looking at closely. 

"He's done a good job on the power play, and I think he's done a good job moving the puck 5-on-5. From a defensive standpoint, he's a young guy that got here, it's a big adjustment coming from college and playing in the minors than playing in the NHL. He's not an overly big guy, so he's got to use his brains and his stick, try to break plays up that way. He's improving, but again, the health thing got in the way a few times for him and it's unfortunate. He needs to stay healthy and I thought he had a good first day today.

"I think Mikkola did make a lot of progress last year. He's in the playoffs playing in significant minutes and doing a good job for us."

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