The 2020 NHL Draft took place just over one year ago, on October 6 and 7, 2020, unusually late due to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequently adjusted season schedules. On that night, the St. Louis Blues selected a big forward from the Edmonton Oil Kings, Jake Neighbours, with the 26th pick. Reviews of the pick were mixed, but most believed the team reached. The Hockey Writers’ head scout, Larry Fisher, ranked Neighbours 51st in his final predraft top 500 rankings.
Now, roughly 53 weeks later, Neighbours is set to make his debut for the Blues in the team’s season opener against the Colorado Avalanche. He will be the 9th player from the 2020 Draft to make his NHL debut, and just the third outside the top 10 picks from the first round. He made the team by surviving a tough training camp, and at the cost of several familiar faces that the team had to send through waivers. Neighbours, just 19, could still play in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with Edmonton later this season, after a nine-game trial. But even if that happens, there is every reason to believe the Blues found a hidden gem by selecting him where they did.
Evolution in Edmonton
When the Blues took Neighbours, most analysts viewed him as a physical talent who might not have the skating, scoring, or skill to break into a top-six spot in the NHL. Though he’d drawn friendly comparisons to Matthew Tkachuk, one of the grittiest players in the league, no team wants to risk drafting a grind line player with their first-round pick. As a result, many analysts were skeptical about the Blues’ choice. But Neighbours had one big advantage: the WHL looked to be set up to play the 2020-21 season, which could not be said for many other junior leagues, including its Ontario counterpart. Moreover, he would get to play on a strong team with a projected top pick in the 2021 Draft, Dylan Guenther, as his linemate.
Neighbours was no slouch in the offensive zone in his draft year, finishing as an over-point-per-game player, with 70 in 64 contests. But in a limited 2020-21 season, he exploded in the offensive zone, grabbing 33 points in just 19 games. He finished in a tie for sixth in scoring in the WHL, and every player ranked above him played at least three more games. And as for any accusations of “riding Guenther’s coattails,” his best stretch of games came while his linemate was out of the lineup.
Neighbours had impressed, but in a shortened season, how much of a difference could it make for his NHL chances? After all, he wasn’t fighting for a spot on a young team looking to rebuild, he’d be trying to make the Blues, just two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Championship. And yet, early in the summer, rumors began that the team wanted to give him every chance to make the team. He paid his own way to stay in St. Louis for much of the summer and skate with the pros. He had a strong showing at the Team Canada summer showcase, and the Traverse City prospect tournament, and he entered training camp with a lot of hype. Still, he had a serious uphill battle to make the team, unless he blew away Berube and general manager Doug Armstrong.
Making a Fan of Berube
Berube has a reputation for being hard on young players, judging them by their mistakes, and offering little forgiveness. Opportunities for youngsters are hard-earned, and some would argue he has hindered the development of top prospects like Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, and Klim Kostin, at least to some degree. So the idea of Neighbours making Berube’s squad as a relatively unheralded 19-year-old winger seemed to be a long shot.
That seemed true, at least, until Berube started singing his praises relentlessly. Neighbours is exactly the kind of player that Berube loves: a hard-nosed, physical antagonist who plays hard on the puck and makes smart plays. And quotes like the one below, where the normally-reserved head coach heaped effusive praise on his young player, became commonplace during the preseason.
By the end of camp, it seemed extremely likely that the Blues would keep Neighbours up, at least for a little while. It would be difficult for a team to preach that every player has a chance to make the team, then look at Neighbours performance and tell him he’d be returning to Edmonton. He earned his shot, and he should be in the lineup on opening night. What happens next will depend on his performance.
Neighbours Future is Bright
So what is Neighbours’ future, exactly? His short-term future is still murky. Due to a unique rule applying to Canadian Hockey League (CHL) prospects, players with CHL affiliation under 20 years old cannot play in the American Hockey League. In other words, Neighbours has to stay in the NHL or return to the Oil Kings and play in a league that is arguably beneath his development level. But NHL teams are given a loophole: a nine-game tryout period where the player can play real NHL games and the team can evaluate his ability to keep up. Those games can be stretched out over time, as the Blues once did with another blue-chip prospect, former captain Alex Pietrangelo.
So Neighbours will play at least nine NHL games this season, likely not in a row, and get a chance to earn a spot. If I was a betting man, I’d say he stays up the whole season. He certainly has the head coach’s trust. He could also be allowed to play for Team Canada in the U20 World Junior Championship in January. Though Canada always has plenty of options, one assumes just about any eligible player with NHL experience would get the call. That could give the Blues a window to have Neighbours play top minutes in a significant role if he spends much of his NHL time in the bottom-six.
As for his long-term future, that is still to be discovered; however, it seems to be incredibly bright, much brighter than anyone anticipated when the team drafted him. The comparisons to Tkachuk now seem apt, as it looks like Neighbours has the upside of a team leader, heart-and-soul prototype power forward who excels at getting under the other team’s skin. Of course, it’s no secret that the Blues would love to acquire Tkachuk himself and bring him back to play for his hometown team. Could the two one day be teammates? If so, they would immediately make the Blues one of the most unpleasant teams to play against in the entire league. That’s the kind of gritty hockey St. Louis fans love, and whether Tkachuk joins or not, it’s likely to make Neighbours, once a doubted draft pick, a fan favorite for many years to come.
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Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.