It was an NHL debut no one expected, yet Jake Neighbours took every opportunity to show us what kind of player the St. Louis Blues have. He is unafraid, unflappable and unselfish…perhaps to a fault.
The 19-year-old from the town of Airdrie, Alberta, Canada looked like he belonged in the big city lights of Denver, Colorado Saturday night. According to official NHL stats, Neighbours clocked in 15 shifts at exactly 9:00 of ice time, playing alongside Tyler Bozak and Ivan Barbashev.
“I think it helps having veteran guys on his line with Bozak and Barbashev as of right now,” said veteran teammate Brayden Schenn after the game. “I thought he did a heck of a job and he’s only going to get better moving forward.”
Neighbours didn’t get on the scoring sheet, but it appears the rookie was put on the 4th line for a reason, and not just because he’s a rookie with something to prove. Both Bozak and Barbashev are defensive-minded forwards, with Barbashev the more physical of the two. Neighbours has the physicality down, and Bozak and Barbashev are here to give him some defensive seasoning.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: LET’S GET PHYSICAL
“I thought he was solid,” Blues head coach Craig Berube said of the young forward’s game against Colorado. “He was strong on the puck, and made good decisions with the puck. He was good down below the goal line with the puck in the offensive zone…killed a couple penalties.”
That last point again highlights what Berube wanted to see out of Neighbours: the ability to play a reliable, physical defensive game. And to be put on an above-average NHL team’s penalty kill unit in your first NHL game, when you’re about 18 months away from being legally able to buy a drink in the United States, speaks volumes about the faith Berube has in Neighbours.
That faith was rewarded and even Schenn felt like applauding.
“First NHL game, I obviously talked to him a lot (to calm his) nerves and I’m sure his sleeps aren’t great, but he stepped in and was physical for us. That’s exactly what we need: we need everyone to bring it, and that’s a huge part of his game. He took some runs in his first NHL game and made good plays.”
Neighbours is officially credited with three hits. While there’s not a stat for this, he also seemed to cover a lot of ice.
WHAT WENT WRONG: SHOOOOOOT
It’s an encouraging trait to see a young forward not being selfish with the puck. It shows that the player obviously values the team game and isn’t a puck hog.
Sometimes in hockey, you can be a little too unselfish and pass up golden shot chances for yourself to set up lesser chances for others. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we sometimes yell at fellow young Blues forward Robert Thomas for passing instead of taking a juicy shot.
“He had a couple opportunities he passed up, I thought,” said Berube with a laugh. “He could have shot a couple.”
One glaring opportunity was in the second period, when he had a 2-on-2 with Bozak, and opted to pass instead.
Neighbours finished the game with just one SOG. However, it’s just one game, and Neighbours will surely learn when to pull the trigger.
OVERALL GAME 1 THOUGHTS
It feels strange writing about Neighbours as a hot prospect rather than an NHL veteran, because he played a veteran’s game Saturday night – physical, mature, and defensive. It’s rare to see that combo in a 19-year-old, but based on past interviews, he has poise beyond his years.
It’s an encouraging start for Neighbours in the NHL. While it may have come earlier than expected, it’s one he earned through hard work and a high level of maturity.
Since Berube had no qualms about him starting in Colorado, a team hyped by many to be the best in the Western Conference, it’s hard to imagine him not getting the nod when the team plays the Arizona Coyotes Monday night.
As Schenn noted, there’s probably no one looking forward to it more than Neighbours himself. “It’s a tough league. I think he’s just excited to get the first one out of the way and look forward to the next one.”