The curtain closed April 28 on a stellar rookie campaign for Airdrie’s Jake Neighbours in the Western Hockey League (WHL).
The 17-year-old left wing enjoyed a deep playoff run with the Edmonton Oil Kings, before the team bowed out with a 4-2 loss in Game 6 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final series against the Prince Albert Raiders.
Neighbours – a first-round, fourth-overall Oil Kings draft pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft – said his first year of major junior hockey had ups and downs, but was, overall, a great experience.
“Making the jump from midget to junior is pretty tough, but I felt I handled it pretty well,” he said.
“By the end of the season, I was getting lots of opportunities and going into key games. When you look at the progress I made, it was a successful year.”
Despite being one of the youngest guys on the ice, Neighbours potted 11 goals and recorded 13 assists in 47 games throughout the regular season. His efforts earned him plenty of plaudits, including the WHL’s Rookie of the Month award in September 2018 and October 2018.
His level of play seemed to go up a notch after the regular season. Neighbours registered four goals and eight assists during the 16-game playoff run, and was the only Edmonton rookie to score during the post-season.
Furthermore, Neighbours came through with some big moments during the playoffs, scoring winning goals in a match-up against the Calgary Hitmen and in Game 2 against the Raiders.
“I like to think I play the type of game that is built for the playoffs,” he said. “The intensity picks up, [as does] the physicality. I’m not one to shy away from any of that.”
Edmonton’s playoff run became one of the Cinderella stories of the 2018-19 WHL season. After finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2017-18 with a 22-42-8 record, the team nearly doubled its win-percentage in 2018-19, ending the regular season at 42-18-8 to finish second in the conference.
Neighbours, who featured as an under-age call-up for 11 Oil Kings games during the 2017-18 campaign, said there was an obvious shift in mentality this season.
“We had new management and new coaches come in, and their main message to us was change,” he said. “Once guys started getting a taste of that winning feeling, it just took off from there. Everyone started to buy in more.
“Winning is fun. When you look at the struggles that some of the guys went through, they were eager for success and we had the group to [succeed].”
The Oil Kings took its winning momentum into the post-season, where it overtook the Medicine Hat Tigers in six games before sweeping the Calgary Hitmen in four, booking a ticket to the conference finals.
But overcoming Prince Albert – the top team in the Eastern Conference with a 54-10-2-2 regular-season record – was going to prove a tough challenge.
“Obviously, they’re a great team and had a great season, but we felt we were right there with them,” Neighbours said. “We could have knocked them off. Their goalie was good for them, making big saves at key times.”
The Oil Kings started strong, taking a 2-1 lead in the series before losing two consecutive games. Playing for survival April 28, Edmonton fell in Game 6.
“Overall, we could have done it,” said Neighbours, who registered a goal and two assists against the Raiders. “We had some success against them. Maybe a bit more experience in our group could have helped us.”
With just four Edmonton players aging out of junior hockey, Neighbours said the squad is primed for another positive campaign in 2019-20.