DULUTH -- Minnesota Duluth junior defenseman Scott Perunovich picked up his biggest award to date of 2019-20 on Thursday when he became the first Bulldog to win NCHC Player of the Year.
Perunovich beat out North Dakota junior forward Jordan Kawaguchi, with whom he shared the league’s Three Stars Award earlier this week, and St. Cloud State senior defenseman Jack Ahcan, who he played alongside at the 2018 World Junior Championship.
Running out of ways to describe the season Perunovich had, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said his fellow Hibbing native is “very deserving” of the league’s top individual honor.
“I’ve said before, he has the ability to control the game,” said Sandelin, who was a finalist for the NCHC’s Herb Brooks Coach of the Year Award for the fourth season in a row. North Dakota’s Brad Berry won the award Thursday for the second time.
“He can push the pace of the game, he’s got good offensive instincts and he’s improved defensively,” Sandelin said. “He’s a catalyst on our team.”
Perunovich is the ninth Bulldog to be named conference player of the year with the previous eight all doing so during UMD’s 48 seasons in the WCHA. Jack Connolly was the most recent winner in 2011-12.
A two-time All-American, three-time All-NCHC first-team selection and three-time NCHC Offensive Defenseman of the Year, Perunovich is also one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. The top three finishers, known as the "Hobey Hat Trick," will be announced Thursday, April 2.
Of the eight Bulldogs to be named WCHA Player of the Year, five went on to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, including Connolly.
“Just to be in the conversation is a huge honor and privilege,” Perunovich said last week when named a finalist for the Hobey. “We’ve had a few Hobey Baker winners here and, man, just to be in the same category as some of those guys that we have would be insane.”
The first defenseman to ever win the NCHC scoring title — but fifth defenseman to be named player of the year in the league’s seven seasons — Perunovich posted a league-leading 28 assists and 32 points in 24 NCHC games, edging Kawaguchi’s 23 assists and 30 points in 22 league games.
Perunovich finished tied for 10th in the nation in scoring and second among defensemen with six goals and 34 assists in 34 games. His 19 assists and 22 points on the power play tied for most in the nation this year.
“He's very confident and that really is good for him. He really plays to that strength,” UMD junior defenseman Dylan Samberg said. “Unlike other people, he's willing to take those risks and most of the time for him they pay off, which is good to see.”
The 21-year-old Perunovich is a 2018 second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, and while he could become an NHL free agent on June 1, he is expected to sign with the franchise sometime this spring.
Bulldogs senior goaltender Hunter Shepard, the NCHC Goaltender of the Year, said he’s noticed Perunovich’s game grow tremendously in two areas. Always an offensive threat, Perunovich now realizes he can control the pace of the game. He’s also a pretty good defensive defenseman, making him the complete package, Shepard said.
“He played a bigger role defensively this year,” Shepard said. “Part of it is he committed himself to that more. He was a guy who was going to have to play a lot of minutes for us and if you are going to do that, you can’t be a defensive liability.”
This year’s NCHC awards, like every other season, were originally scheduled to be handed out during a show March 19 in St. Paul as part of the Frozen Faceoff. That event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three awards were announced each day this week, culminating with Thursday's three.
UMD won six of the league’s 10 player awards this week with junior forward Kobe Roth claiming the Sportsmanship Award, senior Hunter Shepard winning Goaltender of the Year for the second time, junior center Justin Richards winning Defensive Forward of the Year a second time and Perunovich picking up three honors.
Perunovich, Shepard and sophomore forwards Cole Koepke and Noah Cates were also All-NCHC first-team picks last week.
Sandelin said it was exciting this week to see so many of his players recognized.
“A lot of those are team awards, but it’s great to see those guys recognized, especially a guy like Kobe Roth,” Sandelin said. “He’s always a bit under the radar, but he had a great year for us. He’s certainly deserving of that award just the way he played. He’s a disciplined player and had a really good year scoring 13 goals for us. It’s really cool to seem him recognized for that.”
2019-20 NCHC award winners
Sportsmanship Award: Kobe Roth, Jr., F, Minnesota Duluth
Three Stars Award: Scott Perunovich, Jr., D, Minnesota Duluth/Jordan Kawaguchi, Jr., F, North Dakota
Media Excellence Award: Dave Starman, CBS Sports Network
Offensive Defenseman of the Year: Scott Perunovich, Jr., Minnesota Duluth
Defensive Defenseman of the Year: Colton Poolman, Sr., North Dakota
Goaltender of the Year: Hunter Shepard, Sr., Minnesota Duluth
Forward of the Year: Jordan Kawaguchi, Jr., North Dakota
Defensive Forward of the Year: Justin Richards, Jr., Minnesota Duluth
Rookie of the Year: Shane Pinto, F, North Dakota
Player of the Year: Scott Perunovich, Jr., D, Minnesota Duluth
Herb Brooks Coach of the Year: Brad Berry, North Dakota
Senior Scholar-Athlete: Karch Bachman, F, Miami
Bulldogs to win conference Player of the Year
2019-20: Scott Perunovich
2011-12: Jack Connolly*
2003-04: Junior Lessard*
1993-94: Chris Marinucci*
1992-93: Derek Plante
1984-85: Bill Watson*
1983-84: Tom Kurvers*
1982-83: Bob Mason
1966-67: Keith Christiansen
* Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner