(HockeySTL)-- When Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock envisioned what his training camp roster would look like at the beginning of October, he saw the likes of Peter Mueller, Joakim Lindstrom, Dmitrij Jaskin and Magnus Paajarvi competing for a just a few forward positions. But that was as far as the list stretched, even though the Blues’ camp roster was full of young talent. Hitchcock didn’t expect any surprises.
The head coach expected there would be many tough decisions, but he didn’t anticipate that an 18-year-old ‘kid’ would be the one making his life difficult. But that’s what the young forward Robby Fabbri is doing.
“He’s not missing a beat,” Hitchcock said of Fabbri. “He’s not going to go away. He’s pushing for a job here right now. He’s a legitimate guy that is looking for work here.”
Fabbri came into the Blues’ training camp having just signed a three-year entry-level deal with the club. He was one of 59 players on roster when the camp opened on Sept. 18. Now, two weeks later, he is one of the remaining 33 and could make it past the next round of cuts, which are expected to come after Thursday’s preseason game.
“I just keep proving myself, every game, every time I’m on the ice for practice, in the gym,” Fabbri said. “There’s a lot of great forwards here, but I’m just coming out and competing every day.”
The young forward has spent the last three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Guelph Storm. He exploded for 45 goals, 87 points last season, yet, somehow, Fabbri fell to the 21st pick of the draft, the one the Blues happened to own.
There was talk at the draft that the Blues were looking to bundle a couple of picks to move up and snatch forward Nick Schmaltz, but a deal never transpired, so the club settled for Fabbri. But it looks like they may have ‘settled’ for the steal of the draft.
“I was told before we drafted him that he was a special player, that he was really competitive, he’s got great vision and hockey sense,” said Hitchcock. “That was in the middle of June. Then we draft him and I get calls, people saying he is going to push for work here.”
Hitchcock was more than a bit unsure that an 18-year-old could beat out veteran NHL players, but he had it on good authority from Storm coach Scott Walker, a former NHL player, that Fabbri was the real deal.
“Well, Scott told me about this guy,” Hitchcock said. “He told me about him before he got drafted. Nothing registered until we called his name, but he had told me about him when we had Hockey Canada meetings in June. He told me how good he was and then all of a sudden we draft him and now I’m seeing what Scott saw.”
Walker spoke with The Star in Toronto prior to the draft and made it known that he had an abundance of faith in Fabbri. But another Fabbri believer was Mark Seidel, who is the chief scout for North American Central Scouting. Seidel, who previews most of the players who are draft-eligible every year, saw Fabbri play on several occasions and knew there was something special about the forward.
“He’s got star written all over him,” Seidel told The Star in May.
But despite the high praise, Fabbri went undrafted for two-thirds of the first round. The belief is that the forward’s 5’10”, 178-pound frame kept him from being a top-five pick. Based on what he’s shown in training camp, that analysis seems accurate.
“It’s the moxie on the ice,” said Hitchcock. “He does stuff that a 35-year-old does, not an 18-year-old. We’re all waiting for the shoe to drop here, but the shoe is not dropping. He’s putting it on and lacing it even tighter every day. We ought to just give him the respect that he’s just a really good player and not worry about the age right now because he just thinks he’s a hockey player and that’s how he’s playing.”
Fabbri has been a player who has impressed Hitchcock from the get-go. There have been few, if any players, in camp who have outperformed him. Yet, Fabbri is still unlikely to make the club’s roster.
In order for Fabbri to crack the top-nine of the Blues’ forward group, he would have to clearly outperform Lindstrom, who seems to be a lock for the club’s opening night roster, and prove that his play can be consistent enough for the Blues to place another NHL forward on waivers.
The Blues will opt to send Fabbri back to the OHL before they let him play on their fourth line or watch games from the press box. Had the team not acquired the depth it did in the offseason, Fabbri likely would have already locked up a spot on the NHL club.
“Nothing is given to you,” Fabbri said. “You have to earn everything and a lot of people are fighting for spots and I just need to work hard and earn another day as I go along.”
But what Fabbri has done is given himself a strong fighting chance, which is about all he can do in an impossible situation.
“We’re looking at age, what we should look at is the player,” Hitchcock said. “Never mind the age. He’s a young guy. I get that fact. There are going to be some ups and downs. But right now he’s got tremendous hockey sense and vision on the ice that is pretty unique.
“You’re thinking ‘he’s 18, this is going to get to him’. Well, no, it doesn’t and he gets better. To me, he’s put himself in the mix.”
However, Fabbri understands that there is a good chance he will be returning to the OHL within the next week. He won’t be disappointed, but rather confident that he can get even better, even stronger and put himself in a better position for whenever the perfect opportunity presents itself.
“I think I’ve done my best so far,” said Fabbri. “If I get sent back, that’s another year to develop and come back even stronger next year.”
For the Blues’ coaching staff, the decision won’t be easy. To many, it would seem like more than a slight risk to place an 18-year-old on a roster full of other, more seasoned options. But every day, that choice seems less and less crazy to Hitchcock.
“This is a tough league and we wait for young players to get pushed aside, but sometimes there are rare cases where they don’t,” Hitchcock said. “We’ll pull him into the mix and see where he comes out and make a decision from there. But it won’t be based on age.”