Monday, October 11, 2021

Neighbours defies odds, makes Blues opening night roster

2020 first-round pick will open season in NHL, hopes to stick since team 
has up to nine games before deciding to keep him or assign him to juniors

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Jake Neighbours had one goal in mind heading into Blues training camp this season.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Jake Neighbours (63) made the 2021-22 opening roster for the Blues,
defying odds as the 19-year-old wasn't initially slated to begin in NHL.

Of course it's everyone's goal, no matter if you're 18, 19, 28 or 38 is to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a professional athlete, and in this case, an NHL player, but realistically, the chances are normally low.

Robert Thomas was the most recent Blue to buck the odds. Neighbours is the latest when he was announced not only as being part of the Blues' opening 23-man roster for the 2021-22 season, but he will be in the opening night lineup when the Blues face the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.

Neighbours, who the Blues chose with the 26th pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, has done nothing but impress since he arrived in August -- on his own dime, mind you -- to begin working with the veterans early, and he did so with the thought of supplanting someone else's roster spot.

"I wanted to have confidence in myself and there's no point in being in camp if you're not trying to make the team," Neighbours said. "Obviously I had confidence in my abilities. Did I think I was going to make the team? I don't know. I don't think a lot of people expected me to, but I'm obviously very happy with the situation so far and just continuing what I'm doing and try and stick around.

"Obviously really exciting. There's a lot of nerves in camp and throughout preseason not knowing where I was going to end up, where I was going to be and stuff like that. I guess to get the news that I'm going to be starting the season up here is obviously really exciting. I'm just very excited for the opportunity."

Of course this doesn't mean Neighbours, 19, will stick. The Blues have the option that they did with Thomas, Robby Fabbri and Alex Pietrangelo as the most recent players to keep them for up to nine games played before sending them back to juniors. In this case, it would be the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League for Neighbours.

But judging by the left wing's play since he arrived, and all the different situations Neighbours has been put in and thrived thus far, he'll be given every opportunity to stick with the big club.


"I think he'll be used in a lot of different ways, to be honest with you," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "I think he can move up and down our lineup. He can play with offensive players, he can play on a role from a defensive standpoint, killing penalties, he's done a good job. We're going to see what he does here. I think you're going to be pleased with what he's going to do. He's a helluva player. He's done a great job. He came into camp and earned a spot.

"Right now, I've got him starting Game 1. He's earned a spot in this hockey team, so I'm going to treat him like any other player right now. For me, he came into camp, this started last year for me, to be honest with you, seeing him, his character and how he looked last year. I said it's going to be hard to keep this guy out of the league at an early age and he proved me right. He came into camp here, trained hard all summer, was in great shape. A really high-character person, high hockey IQ and he's got a good work ethic."

Neighbours may be sticking around for the time being, but he still has plenty to prove. He skated on a line with Tyler Bozak and Ivan Barbashev on Monday and is slated to open there Saturday.

It will be the first of many tests to see if he can stay beyond his allotted nine games.

"I think there's obviously pressure just to perform at any time," Neighbours said. "I'd obviously love to stay here the entire season. I'm obviously aware of the situation and the nine-game point there, but I'm just going to try focusing on playing hockey. I think if I continue doing what I'm doing and work hard and develop and listen to my teammates and the coaching staff and do what they need me to do, I think that will take care of itself. My job's to go out there and compete when I'm in the lineup and I'm going to try and do that and I guess we'll just go from there."

Neighbours was called into a meeting with Berube and general manager Doug Armstrong, who delivered the good news, and after a team meeting, it was off to spread the word, including his parents.

"Pretty cool," Neighbours said. "Not a lot of people expected me to make it and I think they were also a little shocked when they found out the news and as was I. It was a really exciting moment for me and my family. I'm looking forward to having them there whenever that first one is."

Neighbours has made his impression, not only on the coaching staff and management, but on his teammates as well, including the veterans, as a tireless worker who's relentless on pucks and will do anything asked of him.

"It takes you back when you were that age and how much you were just a sponge," Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "Us veteran guys here, we want to help him out as much as we can, make him comfortable and help him grow himself and his game. You can just see how excited he is to be around and the energy that he has, it's nice for us old guys, it gives us a little spark as well. It's nice. It's great for him. He's a great player and excited to see him keep progressing.

"There's still a lot to happen here, but I think him sticking around starting the season with us is a huge thing. The best thing is he's got to enjoy it, keep improving and got to love every minute of it. It's so much fun that way. It's been good. You see how hard he works, how much he wants it and it's just one of those things that's great to be around, great for him and I'm excited to watch him."

Neighbours played in the first preseason game against Minnesota and skated with James Neal and Bozak, then he played the second game against Dallas and was with Brayden Schenn and Pavel Buchnevich, then skated with Robert Thomas and Vladimir Tarasenko against Chicago on Oct. 1.

The point is Neighbours was used in multiple facets, something that's been in his character traits his entire career.

"For sure. I think my entire career, I've tried to be a versatile player, whether that's in PK, power play or any 5 on 5 situation," Neighbours said. "I try to just make myself available for anything. I'm a big forward who doesn't mind getting in the corners, blocking shots or anything like that. I think that versatility helps me get a little bit more opportunity. I was in the lineup in a number of different places there throughout the preseason, but at this point, I'm just happy to be in the lineup no matter where it will be. I try and take that and be versatile and I think that helps in getting a little more opportunity."

As for his temporary living arrangements, Neighbours will skip the Keith Tkachuk route. Thomas stayed in the Tkachuk household while he was a teenager and getting himself acclimated to pro living, but Neighbours will take up residence with the guy that took him in last year when he came in as an 18-year-old.

"I think Brayden Schenn obviously with me going into camp last year and him taking me in. He was a big help for me as an 18-year-old kid last year and then again through my first full camp this year," Neighbours said. "He's been a huge help for me with tons of little things, lots of advice, whether that be away from the rink or on the ice, with teammates or anything like that. He's been a huge help for me and I can't say enough about anything he's done for me for sure."

Schenn, the fifth pick in the 2009 draft by the Los Angeles Kings, had a cup of coffee with them in 2009-10 (one game) and in 2010-11 (eight games) as an 18- and 19-year-old but in his first full season with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011-12, he experienced something similar when Flyers veterans Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, among others, that helped him as a 20-year-old.

"Me and Kelsey, wife took Jake in and we had him a little bit last year during COVID and when he came to camp and stuff like that," Schenn said. "Now it's a little bit more easier for him. He's getting to know the guys a lot better and he had a great camp. He's obviously still junior-eligible, so he's going to do everything he can to be here for the full season. We believe in our locker room that he's a good piece for us. He brings a different element to our team, can play up and down the lineup and just being at home, he's a polite kid. He's got great manners. He really gets it. He was definitely brought up the right way and we enjoy having him around our home.
(Edmonton Oil Kings photo)
Jake Neighbours had a solid career with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL
but hopes to stick with the Blues in the NHL after making opening roster.

"Just got experience for me back in the day, I had lots of guys that were good to me and I think a lot of guys in our locker room would say the same thing. ... I had guys back in the day like Scott Hartnell and I lived with Claude Giroux my first year that took me in. I guess it's kind of a pay it forward thing and hopefully maybe one day he'll do it for someone else."  

As for the advice in general Neighbours has received from Schenn or whoever else offered it?

"Not to overthink or not to overdo or anything like that," Neighbours said. "Just to go out there and play my game. I think I've done a good job thus far of just being me and trying not to change my game or anything about myself. Just trying to continue that, go out there and compete hard, get to the net and kind of do my thing out there. I think the rest will take care of itself."

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