The St. Louis Blues have some interesting decisions to make as another hockey season approaches. Mainly, they need to decide if any trades need to be made prior to the 2022-23 campaign or if they want to extend some current players.
However, another interesting choice on their table is what to do with Jake Neighbours. The decision is not as easy as it was in 2021-22.
Last year, the Blues knew they had to send Neighbours back to his junior team, the Edmonton Oil Kings. Unless he just blew the socks off everyone in his nine-game tryout, he was never going to stick in the NHL that season.
It’s a different story this time around. The Blues don’t have the excuse of age restrictions now, so whether he stays or not is completely merit based.
For those unaware about the hows and whys of the age restrictions on certain drafted players, the Philadelphia Flyers website did a good job of explaining it back in 2016. Essentially it boils down to Neighbours being drafted from a Canadian Hockey League team, not his age in and of itself.
The CHL made a deal with the NHL long ago to be able to retain players until they were 20. Neighbours already turned 20, so he’s free to go wherever the Blues want to put him.
I already made my prediction where he ends up. However, now that Doug Armstrong has more freedom of choice, it will come down to whether Neighbours lives up to everything Craig Berube asks of him.
We saw the talent there in 2021-22. Neighbours scored a goal and had two points in nine NHL games.
He went on to score 45 points in 30 games with the Oil Kings. He had two assists in two games before the original version of the 2022 World Junior Championships was shut down. He scored a goal in three games in the Memorial Cup tournament too.
It’s the defensive ability that might keep him from playing the entire year in the NHL though. Neighbours looks and plays bigger than his 6-foot frame might suggest, but he’s not used to playing a big man’s game.
It’s easy to use your stick or rely on skating when you’ve lost the puck in juniors. The NHL is a different beast and he’s got to keep those feet moving at all times to fit with a Berube system and play more than five minutes per game.
Maybe Neighbours makes the big club out of training camp and just doesn’t have a great start. The Blues still have some depth, so they could assign Neighbours to the Springfield Thunderbirds just to get him more playing time and maybe top-line minutes.
Or, maybe he sticks in the NHL. Playing under 10 minutes per game and occasionally sitting in the press box isn’t ideal for development, but some players learn best that way.
Once in awhile, letting them see the game from up high opens their mind to things you don’t notice when you’re in the thick of it. Maybe that’s what Neighbours needs – to learn by watching and also practicing against the best instead of being a top-six forward in the minors.
We won’t know right away. I highly doubt he’s in the first round of cuts when training camp begins around a month from now.
I think he starts the season in the NHL. Whether he stays is up to him and how much he can live up to the coaching staff’s somewhat lofty expectations.
At least we know the Blues can shuttle him if necessary. As good as he looked early last year, it stunk to know there was no possibility for him to suit up again that season.