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Neighbours will stick around but still has plenty to prove

Blues can evaluate 2020 first-round pick for nine games before deciding whether he'll remain with the team this season

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

When Jake Neighbours packed his suitcase to head to St. Louis for training camp in the summer, he didn't pack any winter clothes.

Neighbours is a confident player - he'd have to be to believe he could make a stacked St. Louis Blues' Opening Night roster at just 19 years old - but his confidence wasn't so high that he thought he needed to pack a sweater or even a winter coat.

So this past weekend, after surviving the final round of training camp roster cuts, the 2020 first-round draft pick went shopping for something warm.

"I wasn't really expecting to go to Colorado where it's a little colder," Neighbours said Monday before joining the team for its bonding trip to Vail. "(I needed) a sweater, maybe a winter jacket. I (wasn't) fully prepared for what we've got coming up here, but we'll figure it out."

You can't blame the kid for not being fully prepared when it comes to packing his suitcase, but on the ice, Neighbours is completely prepared and then some.

Recently, General Manager Doug Armstrong and Head Coach Craig Berube told Neighbours he'd be sticking around for the start of the 2021-22 season.

"Obviously it's really exciting," Neighbours said. "I think there were a lot of nerves at camp and throughout the preseason, not knowing where I was going to end up, where I was going to be and stuff like that. I guess to get the news that I'm going to be starting the season up here is obviously really exciting and I'm just very excited for the opportunity."

For now, the Blues can evaluate Neighbours in nine NHL games before deciding whether to keep him in the NHL or send him back to juniors. If training camp was a good indicator, though, it looks like Neighbours can help the Blues right now.

"I think he'll be used in a lot of different ways, to be honest with you," Berube said. "I think he can move up and down our lineup, he can play with offensive players and he can play a role from a defensive standpoint, killing penalties, he's done a good job. We're going to just see what he does here and I think you're going to be pleased with what he's going to do. He's a hell of a player, he's done a great job. He came into camp and earned a spot.

"Right now, I've got him starting (Opening Night)," Berube added. "He's earned a spot on this hockey team so I'm going to treat him like any other player right now."

Neighbours played in five preseason games, posting one goal and three assists (four points) for the Blues. Only three players finished with more preseason points - Robert Thomas, Robert Bortuzzo and Ivan Barbashev.

"For us as veteran guys, we want to help him out as much as we can and make him comfortable and help him grow himself and his game," said Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly. "You can just see how excited he is to be around and the energy that he has, it's nice for us old guys, gives us a little spark as well. It's nice. It's great for him, he's a great player and I'm excited to see him keep progressing."

For right now, Neighbours says he isn't thinking too much about the nine-game audition.

"I think there's pressure to perform at any time," Neighbours said. "I obviously would love to stay here the entire season. I'm aware of the situation and the nine-games (mark), but I'm just going to try and focus on playing hockey. I think if I continue to do what I'm doing and work hard and develop and listen to my teammates and the coaching staff and just do what they need me to do, I think (the rest) will take care of itself. My job is to go out there and compete when I'm in the lineup and I'm going to try and do that. I guess we'll just go from there.

"Did I think I was going to make the team (out of camp)? I don't know," he added. "I don't think a lot of people expected me to (do that). But obviously I'm very happy with the situation so far and just looking to continue what I'm doing and try to stick around."

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