Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Blues return Neighbours to juniors

Forward, first round pick in 2020, played ninth game in Winnipeg; team 
made decision based on long-term outlook rather than short-term success

ST. LOUIS -- Decision Day came for the Blues and Jake Neighbours, and the decision was to return the 2020 first-round pick back to juniors.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Jake Neighbours, congratulated by Blues teammates after scoring his first
NHL goal Oct. 23 vs. Los Angeles, was returned to juniors Wednesday.

Neighbours, who played in his ninth game of the season Tuesday night in a 3-2 shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets, was returned to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League instead of keeping him in the NHL moving forward.

In a corresponding move, the team recalled forward Dakota Joshua from Springfield of the American Hockey League to fill the roster spot vacated by Neighbours.

Since he scored his first NHL goal Oct. 23 against the Los Angeles Kings in a 7-3 win when he played a high 11:49, Neighbours' ice time has dwindled to under 10 minutes in each of his last five games along with two healthy scratches.

So Neighbours, who had a goal and an assist in nine games, had the following breakdown in games:

Oct. 16 at Colorado: 9:00 TOI, no points, one shot on goal, even plus/minus, 15 shifts

Oct. 18 at Arizona: 11:04 TOI, one assist, one shot, even plus/minus, 17 shifts

Oct. 20 at Vegas: 10:01 TOI, no points, no shots, even plus-minus, 13 shifts

Oct. 23 vs. Los Angeles: 11:49 TOI, one goal, two shots, minus-1, 15 shifts

Oct. 25 vs. Los Angeles: 7:55 TOI, no points, one shot, even plus/minus, two penalty minutes, 11 shifts

Oct. 28 vs. Colorado: 9:22 TOI, no points, no shots, minus-2, 14 shifts

Oct. 30 vs. Chicago: healthy scratch

Nov. 3 at Los Angeles: healthy scratch

Nov. 4 at San Jose: 9:23 TOI, no points, two shots, plus-1, 14 shifts

Nov. 7 at Anaheim: 9:32 TOI, no points, one shot, even plus/minus, 15 shifts

Nov. 9 at Winnipeg: 6:05 TOI, no points, no shots, even plus/minus, nine shifts

Neighbours, 19, carried a $866,667 cap hit, which could have been viewed as something of an obstacle when it came to the Blues and the $81.5 million cap, especially with the team skirting the cap ceiling and the need to get the injured Oskar Sundqvist and his $2.75 million cap hit in with Sundqvist due to return in the not-too-distant future.

But according to general manager Doug Armstrong, there's more to sending Neighbours back than, and it has everything to do with the big picture.

"I told Jake that starting last January at that camp coming into the last season, I thought he did a really good job with our guys," Armstrong said. "He blended well with our veteran group and coming into this summer, he did a fantastic job training and then giving himself a great training camp and a platform to give us some games. When I talked to him and when I talked to our group, what we need to do is make sure we're giving him the ability to create a foundation to have a solid career. Last year just because of COVID, he didn't get to play a lot of hockey and we don't want him to miss any steps in his growth. I think going back and being a leader on his junior team, playing well and getting an opportunity to represent Canada if asked (at the World Juniors), that's a big step.

"I think when you ask somebody to play all situations, whether it's 5-on-4 or 4-on-5, 6-on-5, 5-on-6, end of games, they have to refer to when they've done it in the past. And quite honestly, his wealth of experience isn't great because of COVID, so going back and playing with the puck, being a leader on and off the ice, playing big minutes on a team that's constantly in the top 10 in the CHL rankings right now, this will give him a great opportunity. He's got some great teammates there to play with."

So it had nothing to do with Neighbours' play and the fact that nobody felt that he couldn't handle the grind of the NHL, but it was becoming increasingly evident that the grind did in fact wear down on him a bit and scores were dictating the usage in recent games.

"I think he could have survived this year, but when you have a prospect that you're going to count on for more than that, I think surviving isn't enough and so it was important for us to maybe bite the bullet this year as far as our team to give him the best chance to have the best career, I think," Armstrong said. "We didn't want to be penny wise, pound foolish. He could have stayed with us and continued down the path of in and out of the lineup and limited minutes. I just didn't think that that was smart medium-to-long-term plans for our organization."

What it means is Neighbours will play with the Oil Kings for the remainder of the season there and is all but likely done with the NHL for 2021-22 unless something unforeseen happens.

"We can get into an emergency situation, which are very difficult to get into, so for all intents and purposes, he's going to go back and finish his year and hopefully take his team deep into the playoffs of the Memorial Cup and then we're going to monitor him, we're going to work him, we're going to work with Edmonton to make sure his growth pattern still continues," Armstrong said. "Yes, for all intents and purposes, he won't be back in the NHL this season."
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Brayden Schenn (left), Kyle Clifford (13) and Msrco Scandella (right)
congratulate Jake Neighbours after scoring his first NHL goal.

Armstrong was asked if the play of 2017 first-round pick Klim Kostin and the fact he's gotten off to a good start to his NHL career made the decision easier to assign Neighbours back, and the GM said no.

"I would say they didn’t go hand-in-hand only because we’re looking long-term growth for Jake," Armstrong said. "Quite honestly, we’re looking long-term growth for Klim. He’s been a pro for five years, but really it’s only his third year of his entry-level. Sometimes you just have to step back and not try and push Father Time and race out and get ahead of things. Players are going to grow and mature and gain experiences. So with Klim, I thought he’s put some great games together. When he plays north-south, I think he’s one of the more dangerous hitters in our game, meaning he arrives with speed and power. He hits hard. We saw his (shot) release in the Anaheim game a couple of different times, and not a lot of puck luck right there. He’s a guy that I think, again, is continuing to give Craig (Berube) opportunity to give himself more ice time, so I think that at his age (22), he’s another bright spot for us moving forward and it’s creating great competition throughout our lineup right now. When we get 'Sunny' back, players that maybe haven’t been in a roster fight are going to be in a roster fight, and I think that’s good for the organization as a whole."

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