Thursday, October 6, 2022

Neighbours playing like he deserves to be, belongs in NHL permanently

2020 first-round pick by the Blues making strong case to 
cracking opening night roster again, staying on it this time around

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- If there's anybody on the Blues that understands what Jake Neighbours is going through these days, trying to make an impression on the coaching staff, Robert Thomas is most definitely the one.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues forward Jake Neighbours (middle) drives the net looking for a
rebound between Minnesota's Dakota Mermis (57) and Filip Gustavsson.

Thomas, the 20th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, didn't immediately earn himself an NHL roster spot after his draft season as a highly-touted center; he was sent back to junior hockey to get some seasoning in before making his impact on Blues brass the following year, much like Neighbours, the 26th pick in the 2020 draft, is currently trying to do.

"I think he's following in the right footsteps," Thomas said of Neighbours. "He's doing everything right."

Neighbours, 20, has gone a slightly different path than Thomas did; he actually made the big club in his first camp and played nine games last season before getting returned to the Western Hockey League.

Neighbours scored his first NHL goal Oct. 23, 2021 against the Los Angeles Kings and finished with a goal and an assist in his nine games. Sure, he wasn't seeing a ton of ice but the experience of it certainly prepared Neighbours mentally to go back, hone in on his game and get back here ready to go. Winning a WHL title as captain of the Edmonton Oil Kings was the capper.

After scoring Tuesday in a 4-2 preseason win against the Minnesota Wild, it's evident that Neighbours is making a strong push and not go away quietly; he's ready to not only make it for good this time around but make that choice as tough on coach Craig Berube and the rest of the staff as possible.

"Yeah he is, yeah. Definitely," Berube said after Tuesday's game.

And that's the plan, not give the coaches an easy out.

"I think it's kind of the same mindset I had last year is just come in with an open mind and anything can happen type thing," Neighbours said. "I think I've been playing well so far through preseason and camp and what not. Like you said, just try and make it tough on them to send me down. I think they know I want to be here, the guys know I want to be here. I'm trying to show them that every night."

Neighbours has three goals and an assist in four preseason games and is expected to play again tonight in Columbus; he's making a mark trying to win a job on the third line playing with perhaps Brayden Schenn and whoever else it may be, whether it's Ivan Barbashev, Logan Brown, Nathan Walker, or whoever. And doing so with a much more physical body than last year.

"He's stronger out there; he wins more battles," Berube said. "To me, he's quicker because he's stronger. I feel like (he's) a more confident player for sure in my opinion."

According to Thomas, who went through some of the same trials and tribulations, confidence is key.

"I think he's done a really good job. I think he looks ready," Thomas said. "He's doing all the right things. He's competing out there every night. It's fun to see. Obviously it's a tough time and nerve-wracking when you don't know your future. You come in every day and just try to make the best impression. I think he's done a great job and he looks ready to me.

"His compete level's there. He's up to speed, he's thinking the game at the right speed. I think he's just got his confidence. You saw that shot (Tuesday) night, it was a great shot. He missed me backdoor, but that's alright (laughs). I love the way he's shooting the puck, I love the way he's carrying it and he's confident with it. That's important to see."

Neighbours has been playing throughout the preseason in the top nine, mainly on that third line because the feeling is that he'd be better off assigned to Springfield of the American Hockey League and play a bigger role than play on the fourth line with the Blues.

But he's up for any assignment given, as long as it's in the NHL.

"At the end of the day, that's up to them," Neighbours said. "I believe they know what's best for me and I trust in them to do that to me. I'm a hockey player at the end of the day and wherever I'm at, I'm going to play hockey at the highest level that I'm playing at. Whether that's in Springfield with those guys, which is going to be a really good team this year, or up here, I'm going to try and play the same way and bring the intangibles night in, night out.

"My rookie year in the WHL, I played a lot of fourth line and I think I have the capabilities to play a fourth-line role and kind of grind it out and be around the net, be hard to play against, be physical. That's something I try to bring is that versatility. Just try and be versatile and whatever way they need me to be there."

Neighbours is certainly not afraid to mix it up and sacrifice his body in front of the net. At 6-foot-0, 202 pounds, Neighbours has the body equipped to play a power forward style with offensive flare. Berube likes the mix.

"He's going to be the type of player that's going to score his goals around the net," Berube said. "I know he made a nice goal (Tuesday) night on his shot, but most of his goals are going to be around the net mucking and grinding. If he's in front of the net for the power play or whatever, that's where he's going to get most of his goals. 

"He's definitely fearless. He puts himself in a lot of tricky situations. He's not scared to get in there, he's going to get in there in all situations and be physical and bang and muck and grind. Sort of an irritating player to play against."

And Neighbours is certainly using every chance he gets to play to mix it up, get in on the action and not shy away from confrontation, no matter the circumstances.

"When you're in my position every game, I don't take any game lightly," Neighbours said. "I'm trying to make the team here. I thought (Tuesday) was a good showing by the team and myself so try to continue that in the last two.

"I was playing with some real good players obviously on the power play with those guys, with 'Schenner' and 'Walks', I thought we worked well together. Starting to develop a little bit of chemistry with 'Schenner' playing with him the last couple games. You only get more familiar and create more chances and things like that. I thought structurally we were good and that leads to success."

Look at Thomas when he broke into the league in 2018-19; he played fourth-line minutes before eventually moving up to help anchor the third line on the Stanley Cup championship team with Tyler Bozak and Pat Maroon.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues forward Jake Neighbours scores on Wild goalie Filip Gustavsson
during Tuesday's 4-2 preseason win at Enterprise Center.

"There's always ways to kind of ease into it and improve your game," Thomas said. "I started on the fourth line for a while. You can start there and work your way up when you're ready. It's obviously hard. We have such a deep forward group that it's hard to crack. I don't think it's necessarily top nine or bust. I think there's different ways he can be used and learn and kind ease into it."

Neighbours has certainly put himself in the conversation of making the opening night roster again. There's always the possibility that the Blues send him down to Springfield for two reasons: 1) to play bigger minutes and get acclimated with the pro style game, contribute more and be relied upon more than he would be in St. Louis, and 2) it could come down to giving a roster spot to someone the Blues would rather protect than expose on waivers and risk losing. Those are managerial decisions that need to be made by GM Doug Armstrong. 

But bottom line for Neighbours: don't leave a stone unturned, dot all the I's and cross the T's and make it as agonizingly tough as possible for the coaches. 

"I'm trying not to leave any regrets out there or anything like that," Neighbours said. "I just try and put my best foot forward every day and work extremely hard and try and make plays when they're there and work within the system. I think I've done a good job of that so far."

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