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'I think I play St. Louis Blues hockey' | Blues first-round pick is excited to be in the organization

"To be drafted to a recent Stanley Cup winning team, an amazing organization with a lot of great players on it... I'm very honored," Jake Neighbours said
Credit: St. Louis Blues

ST. LOUIS — Jake Neighbours was surrounded by some of his closest family members watching and patiently waiting not knowing what to expect Tuesday night.

As Neighbours and roughly 10 or 11 other family members were watching the broadcast of the 2020 NHL Draft, done virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, they jumped in jubilation when Blues general manager Doug Armstrong made the Calgary native the Blues' first-round pick (No. 26 overall). 

"Actually, I had no idea," Neighbours said. "I was coming into it with an open mind. I'm trying to enjoy the night with my family. If you can believe it, actually that's every parent and sibling that I have. It's a pretty extended family as it is and I'm trying to keep it as small as we could. Nothing's for sure. We didn't come in here knowing we were going in the first.

"It's insane. Kind of throughout the summer, I had lots of talks with the Blues and they had good things to say about me and I had nothing but great things to say about them and I thought I interviewed pretty well. Coming into the draft, you had no idea who it was going to be. To be drafted to a recent Stanley Cup winning team, an amazing organization with a lot of great players on it, I'm very, very excited and I'm very honored."

The Blues went with the 5-foot-11 and 3/4, 194-pound left wing who spent last season with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League, where he produced 70 points (23 goals, 47 assists) in 64 games. Neighbours, 18, made his WHL debut as a 15-year-old in 2017-18.

"We spent a lot of time watching (him). He's a left winger. He plays 'Blues style hockey.' Very competitive, can play up and down your lineup," Armstrong said. "Goes to the hard areas of the ice very willingly. Someone that I think can complement very good players. Someone that is just, I think, going to fit in with his character and his work ethic into our group moving forward.

"... It was best available player, whether it was a centerman, a defenseman, a winger ... it didn't really matter to us. We wanted to get a player that we think can complement our group moving forward. As you know, the player you take today, when you're picking, you hope can get on your roster in two or three years and maybe make an impact in four or five. The roster is going to change a bit between now and then, so we were just looking to take the best available player."

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Neighbours had 34 goals and 64 assists in three seasons in the WHL and also represented Canada's U-18 squad last season at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial. He got picked by a team one year removed from winning a Stanley Cup he knows little about other than watching on television.

"Obviously not too much. I watched a lot of hockey, I watched them play a lot of games, seeing a lot of players go through there," Neighbours said of the Blues. "I think obviously they're a great hockey team. They're always competitive and they're fun to watch. They've got great fans and I've heard it's a great city. I'm very excited to get to know them a little better and the city better and everything like that, so it should be fun."

Neighbours fits the mold of what a Blues player is about, who plays with an edge, plays physical and isn't afraid to forecheck and defend both ends of the ice with an added scoring touch.

"I'm someone who plays with a lot of compete, a lot of intensity," Neighbours said. "I think I play St. Louis Blues hockey. I'm in there banging bodies and I'll be physical and in on the forecheck and blocking shots, doing what it takes. But at the same time, I'm going to bring you a steady pace of scoring and offense and I'd like to think I'm a good producer as a forward someone who can kind of play up and down the lineup and be versatile for the Blues."

His bio says a comparable player is that of Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin; Neighbours said he emulates his game after that of St. Louisan Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames. Armstrong said Blues scouts said Neighbours reminds him of longtime Dallas Star and former Blue Brenden Morrow.

"Well, the player that our scouts compared him to, which was music to my ears, who is a player I was part of in Dallas selecting, Brenden Morrow," Armstrong said. "That's the type of player they think he can become.

"... We got all of our scouting done before March. We were hoping to see him in the playoffs, in the different tournaments. Our scouts obviously saw him as an underage, which would have been last year and then focused in on him this year. I was in Edmonton earlier in the year and spent some time with the Oilers staff and met the junior general manager and we talked a little bit about him. Everyone raves about his character and his desire to get better. I've had a couple texts from some friends in Edmonton telling me that it's a very strong pick. He's a Blues-style player and you love to hear those type of things.

"I think when you look at all the mock drafts, where he was, he was somewhere between where we picked and 31, 32, 33 ... so it wasn't like it was right out of left field. We think he's a player that can help us and we didn't want to risk moving back into like 29, 30, 31 because he's a player we targeted. I certainly respect the mock drafts, but I also respect our scouting staff that spends their livelihood doing this for their opinions."

Neighbours is ready and committed to doing what it takes to make it to the NHL, even if that means putting in all the hard work and going through the pipeline, which is something the Blues like to do with their prospects and not rush picks. 

"A hundred percent. I think right off the bat, I'm obviously going to push for a roster spot. I'm always going to do that," Neighbours said. "Every time I come to camp, I'm going to compete my hardest and do my best to showcase myself. Obviously I know the NHL is a jump for sure and it's a process. This is one step in it and we've just got to continue from here. I'm ready for whatever amount of work I need to put in or however long this is going to take because at the end of the day, to pull over that Blues jersey will be insane and to play an NHL game with them would be absolutely crazy. I'm ready for whatever it takes."

The Blues will head into the second day of the draft (10:30 a.m. CT) on Wednesday without a second-round pick but two picks in the third round (No. 86 and No. 88), one in the fourth (No. 119), two in the fifth (No. 146 and No. 150) and one in the seventh (No. 203).

"We have two thirds. I think you can move those two thirds into the second round if the player is there that we want," Armstrong said. "We're going to re-evaluate as soon as we're done with this Zoom call. I'm going to sit with our scouts, look at all 31 picks, get our list back in order and see what's available. We don't have a second, we have two thirds, so we have to be prepared tomorrow to get some work done."

* NOTES — The Blues also announced Tuesday they've extended qualifying offers to restricted free agents Vince Dunn, Austin Poganski, Mitch Reinke and Jake Walman.

By extending qualifying offers, the Blues will retain player contract negotiation rights when free agency opens on Oct. 9. 

Players that do not receive qualifying offers become unrestricted free agents, and the deadline for said qualifying offers to be submitted by 4 p.m. (CT) on Wednesday.

Also, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced prior to the draft that the league and NHL Players' Association agreed they will target Jan. 1 for the start of the 2020-21 regular season. Estimated timing for the start of training camp will be announced at a later date.

Of course, under normal circumstances, the season would be getting underway this week, and the Blues were scheduled to play against the Minnesota Wild at the 2021 Winter Classic but that is now up in the air.