I had the chance to jump on a Zoom call with Edmonton Oil Kings forward Jake Neighbours. The 2020 draft-eligible prospect was having a strong year with 70 points in 64 games. We chatted about his season in Edmonton, the opportunities he’s had with Team Canada, and more. We also looked at some video from his season and he talked us through the play.
Tony Ferrari: The season ended pretty abruptly because of the COVID-19 virus, and the Oil Kings were readying for a run in the playoffs. What feeling are you left with on the hockey side of things?
Jake Neighbours: I think obviously as a player there’s a little bit of frustration. Especially in my situation, it’s a big year for me with it being my draft year and everything like that. On top of that, my team was having a really successful year and we were kind of planning on having a really good playoff run there, making a push for a championship so it’s obviously a little bit frustrating but I’d be selfish to say I’m mad at the world because this is going on. I think there are bigger things at stake here and some things have to be sacrificed for safety.
TF: It’s a situation that we’re all having to adapt to as you said. It is your draft year and you were having quite a good season personally as well with 70 points in 64 games, was that a mark that you set as a goal for yourself this season?
JN: Yeah, I had a goal coming into the year to reach 68 points and be a point-per-game player in the Western Hockey League. That was kind of my base goal. I overachieved it a bit which is always awesome. You strive for goals like that from the start of the year so to achieve it and then pass it was pretty good for me for sure.
TF: What was the one factor that set your team apart this year as the season wore on?
JN: I think we had a really close team. We had a really good bond in the room in terms of having everyone together from rookies to 20s, we didn’t really have any status above one another. We did a really good job of that in terms of atmosphere in the room. Then in terms of the on-ice aspect, we just always found ways to win games. We always hung in games no matter how many bad periods we had. Either our goaltending would be going or our team would score on demand to keep us in games. We just found ways to win and that was the biggest thing. If you have four lines contributing and three D-pairs playing solid and then two goalies standing tall, I think you’re going to have a pretty solid season. I think we did a pretty good job of that.
TF: You guys certainly did. The Oil Kings finished near the top of the standings in the WHL. With it being your draft year, how much do you follow the coverage of the 2020 Draft?
JN: Yeah, I think every player looks at it just to try to stay up to date with it and see where you are in terms of rankings and stuff. I try not to look into it too deeply in terms of where I’m at on every list. I just try to play my game every night and impress the NHL scouts, trying to put my best foot forward for them as we move towards the draft. So I do follow it a little bit and it’s cool to be honored by websites and analysts and put into rankings. Seeing my name put on all of the rankings and lists from these websites is pretty special.
TF: Well your name is in and around the first round on a lot of lists so you’re not doing too bad. What kind of player is a team getting when they select Jake Neighbours next month or whenever the draft takes place?
JN: I think I play a strong 200-foot game. I think I’m a bit of a swiss army knife in terms of being able to use me in any situation throughout a game. I think I bring a good combination of having a bit of edge and bite but at the same time still being a player with speed and skill who can be a skilled guy off the rush and make plays in the offensive zone. I think one of the bigger parts of my game is the physicality and the edge I bring and being a bit of a pest on the ice. I believe I’m reliable in the defensive zone as well and I play good PK minutes for my team as well as powerplay minutes. I’m a guy who is going to bring leadership into a room and all sorts of intangibles.
TF: You play a pretty complete game but no player is perfect. What are areas in your own game that you feel have to be improved upon before you get to the next level?
JN: I think it’s my explosiveness from my first three strides out of the gate, becoming a quicker player in terms of acceleration to my top speed. I’ve been working on it a lot so far this spring and summer. I want to add a bit more of a goal-scoring touch to my game as well. I think I had a lot of shots and chances this season and I probably should have scored a few more goals. I think becoming a more double-edged threat in terms of being a playmaker and a goal-scorer will help my game a lot as well.
TF: Something a lot of kids here in Canada grow up dreaming about is playing for Team Canada. I know I did and I’m sure you did as well. You’ve had the opportunity to represent Canada a few times now at various tournaments such as the U17’s and the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, what is it that you think makes that such a special experience?
JN: I think you touched on it a bit there but as a kid you grow up watching the World Juniors and things like that. You always dream about throwing on that maple leaf sweater and I’ve been fortunate enough to do it twice now. When you pull that jersey over your head it’s such a special feeling. You’re representing something so much bigger than yourself. It’s definitely pretty special to be able to go there and play against some of the most elite players in the world and playing with them as well is something that players thrive on. A guy like me will try to pick things up from other players and implement them into my game. The competition is so high. You get to travel the world with them and stuff like that, it’s all pretty surreal.
One memory I took from it, and I think a lot of Canadian hockey fans do as well, is the Cole Perfetti shootout win we had against Sweden in the Hlinka. That game was absolutely unbelievable and an emotional rollercoaster and something I’ll never forget.
TF: I remember that moment well. You mentioned the World Juniors, do you feel like making that team is a goal for you as soon this upcoming winter?
JN: For sure. I think of myself as a guy who can truly play up and down the lineup. That’s something that is valuable to the World Junior team and the Hockey Canada program. You can use me in whatever situation and any way you want. I have the confidence and the belief that I could get an invite to a camp and getting a chance to earn my spot on that team would be pretty special. Obviously I am going to set goals and set high goals that are going to be difficult to achieve and this is definitely one of them. I’m excited to get the season back up and going again and getting back with the Oil Kings and put together another championship-level team but I also want to prove myself and work my way onto that team.
TF: You go head-to-head with other draft-eligible players all the time in the WHL. Is there a fellow draft-eligible player that you found difficult to play against or they impressed you with their play?
JN: There is a lot of guys I could list off honestly. As we talked about, I’ve been fortunate enough to play with and against some pretty elite players. It’s pretty hard to pick one or two guys. At the top prospects game I got to see Alexis Lafreniere for the first time and I was actually line matched against him with (Quinton) Byfield and he’s obviously a pretty special player. He plays the game the right way and that’s the biggest thing I was impressed with.
In terms of the Western Hockey League guys, I have to give credit to guys like Ozzy Weisblatt, Ridley Greig and guys like that hwo play with a lot of skill and really grind it out and have some bite to their game. They are both tremendously gifted offensively and important for their teams. I could go on and on about players that I have played with and against that deserve a bit more hype but I’ll go with those two right now.
TF: You mentioned the bite and edge that those guys play with and you yourself play with quite a bit as well. It’s something that seems to be a staple of the WHL and the players that come into the NHL from the league. Players with a high level of skill but with the added physical or pest-like element to their game. Is that a result of the style of play in the WHL or is there something that teams out west focus on more than other regions? Could it even just be a western Canadian thing?
JN: Honestly, I’m not too sure. You know, coming from Alberta, us Alberta boys for sure play with a little bit more physicality and more bite. We have that added competitiveness. Alberta boys were just raised that way competing with each other. I think it could just be the atmosphere in the Western Hockey League. There’s a lot of hype about it being one of the toughest leagues to play in and guys bring that added bit of grit to their game every single night. It makes it fun and enjoyable. It makes it intense. It makes it emotional. There’s always good hockey out west and they obviously have produced a ton of great players.
TF: You’re not wrong there and yourself and guys like Ozzy and Ridly are some of the latest examples of that. Next I have a few video clips from this past season and we can break them down together. This first one is a goal that you scored from a bit of an odd angle. Walk us through to the goal.
JN: At the start, there’s a zone entry and Riley (Sawchuk) sends it over to me. I was just trying to get down the wall and get a shot on net. Missed pretty badly (laughs) and then (Dylan) Guenther comes down the wall here and throws it off the net and it heads to the back wall and then right onto my stick and I threw it on net for the hattrick there. Pretty lucky sequence I guess, but it’s a good goal so I was happy with it.
TF: Scoring goals in unorthodox ways like this is going to help you at the next level as well. Is that something that you can see yourself doing and maybe altering your shot to score a goal and maybe get tight on the netminder or chip is shots from bad angles?
JN: That’s something that I take pride in for sure. Having good hockey IQ, on a play like that you have to have a bit of vision and awareness for what’s going on around you so that you can make those decisions and I am always looking for opportunities to do that.
TF: This next clip here is a wicked backhander on the rush that you’re able to put over the goalie’s shoulder. I’ll be honest, I just enjoy watching this goal so I had to ask you about your thinking on a play like this.
JN: Well it was a good pass out of the zone to Riley and he just tapped it to me. I burned the defender to the outside and just sent the backhander at the net and it beat to goalie short side shelf. It might have been a bit of a lucky shot but that’s what you have to do. It was a good transition play and we were able to catch Red Deer (Rebels) on a bit of a line change there and I had the extra space to take it down the wall and then threw it on net.
TF: When I’ve watched you play, I’ve seen you score goals in a variety of different ways from ripping a one-time shot to scoring a greasy goal in tight or either of the two we’ve looked at thus far. Is shooting in high volume something that you focus on personally?
JN: Yeah for sure. Putting pucks on net is a team concept and it’s something that we try to do in Edmonton for sure. Getting and winning offensive zone draws and getting the volume up and making sure the goalie is getting his work in. It’s a mindset of the team for sure but myself personally, I’m trying to become more of a goal-scorer and developing a bit more of a shoot-first mentality and becoming the double-edged sword like we were talking about earlier. Having that ability to score from anywhere and in a variety of ways is something I try to incorporate into my game.
TF: Normally I wouldn’t ride home about a secondary assist but that’s what the next clip is about. It’s a play where you seem to have eyes in the back of your head a bit. Talk us through it.
JN: I remember this one well. It started as a bit of a weird play I think. Cloudy (Wyatt McLeod) went down the wall and I was replacing the defensemen. The puck came to me up the wall and I heard Riley calling and I knew he was going to be there because he loves that spot. I kind of just turned and fired it through the offensive zone. You know, threaded it through a couple sticks and bodies and got it to him. Guenther in a good scoring position like he always is. He gets the puck from Riley and puts some nice finish on it. On my pass, I think it was just a little bit of awareness and the call from Riley helps a ton as well. Our line did a lot of good stuff like this throughout the season and that’s just another example of how well we would work off each other.
TF: The three of you worked really well together and seemed to click every time you were on the ice together. Was that something that you worked on in training camp or throughout the year or was it a natural fit chemistry-wise?
JN: Me, Riley and Guenther played most of the preseason together and when we were missing guys and stuff. When the season started, Dylan started a bit lower in the lineup and slowly worked his way back up again. He did a good job of that, earning his ice-time and getting back with me and Riley. Then it was just continued chemistry from the preseason. We were really good in terms of communicating with each other and making sure we are where we need to be in the offensive zone and what plays we’re going to run and stuff like that. I think that helps a lot with chemistry and knowing where guys are. We got really comfortable together so it made it a lot easier to play with each other.
TF: Next season, Dylan is going to be in your position as it will be his draft year. Is there anything you are going to say or do to help with that process for him?
JN: For sure. Off the start of the season I’ll just talk to him, maybe take him for a coffee or something and sit down with him. Just let him know what to expect type-thing and just let him know that if he has any questions I’m here to talk. Guys like myself and Matthew Robertson will be there for him and help with whatever he needs but Dylan’s a really mature kid and a very good hockey player as well so I think he’ll handle it all just fine.
TF: I appreciate you sitting down with me and giving me a bit of your time today. Good luck at the draft and I look forward to seeing where your career goes from here.
JN: Thanks for having me.
Thanks for reading! You can reach me at @theTonyFerrari on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you and find out what you want to see from the team here at Dobber Prospects and myself. Whether it be NHL Draft related or you just want some information on your team’s prospects, we are here to help!
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