ST. LOUIS — Scott Walker has some strong opinions about Robby Fabbri, the St. Louis Blues’ first-round pick in last week’s NHL Draft.
"I don’t think I made any secrets about it that I thought he was the most skilled player in the whole draft and maybe the most competitive player in the draft," Walker told FOXSportsMidwest.com. "From the guys I’ve seen and worked with day to day with the Under-18’s and in our league and stuff like that. The kid just wants to win. He’s unbelievably gifted skill-wise. He sees the people around him real well. He’s just not 6 foot 2. If he’s 6 foot 2, he’s probably going No. 1 overall. There’s not much you can do about that."
Walker was Fabbri’s coach the past two seasons with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, when the skilled Canadian center scored 55 goals and racked up 120 points in 117 regular season games and led the Storm to its third OHL championship.
So Walker is biased, of course, but he’s also a hockey lifer who knows what he’s talking about.
Walker is a veteran of 829 career NHL games, in which he scored 397 points, and he last played in the league during the 2009-10 season with Carolina and Washington. He became Guelph’s head coach soon after his NHL career ended and has been in that position ever since.
The coach has seen what the 18-year-old, who was the MVP of the OHL playoffs, is capable of.
"This year there was no secret it was his draft year and we won the OHL Cup," Walker said. "People say he was good because he was on a good hockey team or a great hockey team, but he made our players better. He made our team a lot better. You don’t score 45 goals in our league, I don’t care who you’re playing with, and miss 10 games with a suspension. He’s an exceptional hockey player. Are there things he’ll have to work on to make it and be a big player in the NHL? Absolutely. But I don’t think there’s a player in any league who doesn’t have to refine his game to play at the National Hockey League level."
Fabbri was one of 10 OHL players selected in the first round of the draft.
He was the seventh of those prospects picked, following the likes of defenseman Aaron Ekblad (No. 1 overall to Florida), center Sam Bennett (No. 4 to Calgary) and left winger Michael Dal Colle (No. 5 to the New York Islanders).
Walker said Fabbri has to work to get stronger, both with his leg strength and upper-body strength, and has to stay composed and not let whatever frustrations come his way get the best of him.
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"This guy, he’s very driven," Walker said. "There’s a lot of good hockey players and then there’s a lot of good hockey players that want to be better and get better every day, and Robby falls in the latter. There’s a lot of hockey players that are just good because they are good at what they do and are content. This guy understands that he has to get better every day and every day he comes to the rink he wants to get better. He’s honestly been a real treat for me to coach because of the passion he brings every day. Even at practice, guys don’t want to go against him in one on ones because he won’t stop. He’s relentless."
The biggest knock of Fabbri is his size.
Fabbri is listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds now, but Walker expects that the teenager will eventually grow closer to 5-11 and around 190-195 pounds.
That’s basically the same size as the listed heights and weights for current Blues T.J. Oshie (5-11, 189), Jaden Schwartz (5-10, 190) and Vladimir Sobotka (5-10, 197).
"You can’t have your whole team small, but St. Louis is by no means small," Walker said. "They are one of the bigger teams. When you can compliment that with highly skilled guys around there with some size, it makes your team complete. You have to have a high-degree of skill in the NHL and I think Robby can bring that. I’m not overselling. I’m not sure he’s going to step in and make the team this year, but I can promise you one thing — he’s going to come to camp and guys are going to be excited to see him. That’s for sure."
The Guelph coach is not predicting that his protege will make the Blues this season. He doesn’t want to put those kind of expectations on Fabbri already, just days after the kid was drafted. But he thinks it’s possible.
"Now, would I be surprised if he made the team this year? I probably wouldn’t be shocked because he is that exciting and I know guys are going to get excited about him," Walker said. "Will he play the whole year in St. Louis? I guess that would surprise me. I remember when he came to our camp the first year. We were sitting up in the crowd with a bunch of people and every time he did something everybody was like, ‘Was that Robby again? Was that Robby?’ That’s what you want. You want him to come there and leave a good impression, whether he makes the team or he makes nine games or he makes 22 games or he makes two games or he makes no games. As long as he goes and leaves a great impression, that’s what I’m excited for and I hope he does that. I’m sure he will. But it’s a big step. It’s the NHL. It’s a pretty good league."
The Blues don’t need Fabbri to contribute right away, especially not after adding signing a pair of centers in Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera to add to those already on a talented roster. St. Louis can afford to take its time with Fabbri and let him develop at his own pace, similar to what they’ve done with other top prospects over the years.
But when he gets here, when he finally pulls on the Blues sweater, Walker expects Fabbri to be a difficult guy to play against.
"To be honest with you," Walker said, "Robby is a pain in the ass to play against. Not that he’s dirty, but he’s never going to stop, he’s going to go to those hard areas and sometimes people get mad at that. Like this guy won’t stop. He just keeps coming and coming."