Blues’ Jake Neighbours and net-front presence are becoming synonymous

ST. LOUIS — Jake Neighbours learned the old-fashioned way that he would be moved to the net-front position on the St. Louis Blues’ struggling power play.

“Just came to the rink, my number was on the board in the blue paint, and I knew my job from that point on,” he said.

The change came in mid-November, even before former coach Craig Berube was replaced by Drew Bannister, though it became a more consistent assignment for Neighbours under Bannister.

It might be the single most important adjustment of the Blues’ season, because where would they be without the willingness of the 21-year-old to stand in the most dangerous area of the ice?

Neighbours netted his team-high eighth power-play goal of the season in the Blues’ 4-2 win over Anaheim on Sunday, and he was a factor in front of the net on all three of the unit’s goals on the man advantage.

The unit has now scored five goals in its last four games and ranks No. 25 in the NHL at 18.1 percent. That might not sound like much, but you don’t have to be a longtime Blues fan to recall they were last in the league and operating at less than five-percent efficiency earlier in the season.

That’s not all a credit to Neighbours, but he’s been a big part of it.

“He’s done a great job,” Bannister said. “That’s been a big part of the power play’s success since we’ve put him in that position.”

But Neighbours’ impact on the offense at the net front goes beyond the power play. His goal was his 22nd of the season, and according to NHL Edge stats, 17 of those have come either in the paint (five) or in the high-danger area (12).

“It’s just the way he plays the game of hockey,” Blues defenseman Justin Faulk said. “He plays hard, right? He’s willing to go there. Not everyone likes to play that way, but he does. It’s a little bit of an old-school mentality, but he’s willing to go there and he’s getting rewarded for it. You hope that a lot of guys see that.

“It’s a thankless job at times to get hit with pucks a lot. You’ve got pucks coming at your face quite a bit. Buy he’s had what, four or five tip-ins hit him, assists, whatever, just from literally standing there and being willing to take the abuse. You don’t find too many young guys that are willing to do that. It’s a great quality he has.”

The Blues had three power plays in the first period against Anaheim and were 0-for-3 with a total of five shots on goal. The Ducks came into the game with the 30th-ranked penalty-killing unit and have given up 11 power-play goals on their last 21 PKs.

The score was knotted 1-1 going into the third period, when the Blues’ coaching staff made some personnel changes, putting Blues captain Brayden Schenn and Faulk on the unit in place of Jordan Kyrou and Torey Krug.

“I don’t know if they provided anything differently, but we seemed to be more direct and move the puck and execute and get more pucks to the net and just make quicker decisions,” Bannister said.

And guess who was standing in front of the net?

Robert Thomas gave the Blues a 2-1 advantage with a power-play goal, and it came on a wrister from the high slot, with Neighbours parked in front of Ducks goalie Lukas Dostal.


Thomas has developed a sneaky-good shot this season, but this one likely doesn’t happen without the screen.

“We just talked to him about being in a position to take the goalie’s eyes away, move through the goalie’s eyes when he sees the shot coming, from Robby (Thomas) or Jordan (Kyrou), whoever’s on the flanks at the time,” Bannister said. “A lot of it is pre-scouting and just him doing his job when he’s there in that position.”

But this is all new to Neighbours, who in junior hockey with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League actually played where Thomas lines up on the flank.

“It’s a bit different,” Neighbours said. “You’re kind of looking at the game differently than everybody else. I think you try to take a look over your shoulder and just see where the goalie’s leaning and try and take his eyes from there. I’m still working to find my positioning. I think sometimes I’m too far off to the side or not as square as I’d like to be. There’s some improvements to be made.”

Less than five minutes later, Neighbours had a power-play goal of his own, deflecting in a shot by Schenn for a 3-1 lead.

Here again, despite the deft touch on the redirect, Neighbours was calling his part of the play fortunate afterward.

“It’s tough for a goalie to react when the puck is changing direction right in front of him,” Neighbours said. “I’m trying to get better at it. That one was kind of lucky. I was trying to tip it down and it went up, but I’ll take the lucky bounce. That’s Schenner just being a smart shooter. He sees that the goalie can’t really see the release and just puts it in a good spot.”

Neighbours’ workday wasn’t done.

The Blues scored three power-play goals within nine minutes in the third period, and with Thomas picking up his second of the day, it was Neighbours again stationed in front of the net.

“Jake did an incredible job in front of the net,” Thomas said. “It was a big factor in all three of those goals. He makes a living around the net. He’s hard down there, he gets open, he screens, and he does a lot of little things that make all the difference in the world. He deserves a lot of credit for the power play’s success tonight.”

Watching Neighbours has led Blues fans to wonder lately who’s the last player to be so noticeable in front of the net. Keith Tkachuk? David Backes?

“‘Big Walt’ is a lot bigger,” Thomas said, referring to Tkachuk by his nickname.

Neighbours, who’s listed at 6 foot, 201 pounds, blushed at the mention of Big Walt.

“He’s a way better player than I am, much more effective at the net front and a lot scarier to try and move out of there,” he said. “I think there’s no point in comparing us two. He’s a (Blues) Hall of Famer for a reason.”

But there was a time early in Tkachuk’s career when he discovered the effect he could have on a game, and he stuck with it. And now Neighbours is going to do the same.

“Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to change it,” he said. “It’s been working well for me. No plans to change it up anytime soon. Whatever I can do to get on the power play, and stay on it, that’s what I’m going to do.”

(Top photo of Jake Neighbours deflecting the puck past Lukas Dostal of the Ducks for a goal: Scott Rovak / NHLI via Getty Images)

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