Robby Fabbri needed out of St. Louis. One month into the season, the 23-year-old had played nine games, his ice time average had sunk below 10 minutes, he had been a scratch in eight of the Blues’ past nine outings and it had become apparent that if the once first-round pick was ever going to fulfill his potential, it wouldn’t happen with him skating in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.
And on Wednesday, he got his wish.
In a deal that will by no means make the front page in either St. Louis or Detroit, the Blues and Red Wings executed a one-for-one swap that sent Fabbri to Hockeytown in exchange for Jacob de La Rose, a 24-year-old grind-line winger who was a second-round pick in 2013, selected 34th overall by the Montreal Canadiens. It’s a hole-filling trade for St. Louis, a crash-and-bang player brought in to play bottom-six minutes, and that the trade was made not long after veteran Alex Steen suffered a lower-body injury might turn out to be more than coincidental depending on Steen’s diagnosis. But for the Red Wings, the motivation behind Fabbri’s acquisition is abundantly clear.
Maybe it’s hard to remember now, some three-plus seasons into the future, but there was a time not all that long ago that Fabbri was considered a legitimate up-and-comer for the Blues, a diminutive winger who had plus-sized promise and looked ready to step into a consistent top-six role in St. Louis. During his rookie campaign, Fabbri flirted with the 20-goal and 40-point plateaus – he finished with 18 tallies and 37 points – and his playoff performance that spring had all the makings of a coming-out party. In 20 games, his four goals and 15 points were enough to tie for the team scoring lead as the Blues came within two wins of advancing to the Stanley Cup final. He was the future, and that future looked bright for Fabbri. Then came the injuries.
Midway through his sophomore season, Fabbri blew out his left ACL and was sidelined for the final 30 regular season and all 11 playoff games the Blues played in 2016-17. Then disaster struck as he was set to make his return. Fabbri re-injured the same knee, tore the same ligament, and was forced to sit out the entire 2017-18 campaign. By the time he returned last season – at which point he had already missed action recuperating from a groin injury – he had been surpassed on the depth chart, his spot handed to others, and his time spent watching from the sideline through the early part of this campaign gave every indication that Fabbri was in need of a change of scenery.
That’s where the Red Wings come in.
In Detroit, what Fabbri will be given is the one thing he so sorely needs to get his career back on track: an opportunity. He had proven through the early part of his career that he had a top-six skillset and, more importantly, mindset. He could think the game and see the game the way top-six talents so often do. He could make plays and find teammates and generate offense. Yet, upon his return to the lineup last season, he was relegated to minor minutes. In only eight games did he skate more than 15 minutes and he played fewer than 13 minutes in more than half of his appearances. That carried on through the post-season, where he played in 10 games and had an 8:39 average ice time, and didn’t change when the puck dropped this season.
The logjam that prevented Fabbri from playing up the lineup with the Blues, however, doesn’t exist with the Red Wings. Fabbri won’t be stuck behind Steen and Jaden Schwartz and Zach Sanford on the wing. Instead, he’ll find himself battling Tyler Bertuzzi and Darren Helm and Brendan Perlini for ice time. And the Red Wings’ hope is that Fabbri can rediscover the offensive touch that once made him so promising if he’s given the ice time he needs to feel comfortable in a scoring role again. The upside is there. It’s just a matter of tapping into it.
It’s the potential he possesses, nothing more, that makes Fabbri the ideal reclamation project for the Red Wings, too. He’ll never be quite as fleet of foot as he once was, but that wasn’t the only element of Fabbri’s game. He was a major junior standout because he had a knack for offense, he the 21st overall pick in the 2014 draft because of his playmaking ability and he was a rookie standout not because he was head-and-shoulders faster than those around him, but because he gelled with likeminded players. Talented players surrounded by other talented players know how to be successful. And if there’s anyone familiar with the idea of buying low in hopes of uncovering potential, it’s Detroit GM Steve Yzerman, whose catalogue of low-risk, high-reward success stories includes Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Marchessault and Yanni Gourde. To suggest Fabbri can be another in a long line of success stories for Yzerman would be incredibly, almost laughably, premature, but that someone with his track record sees something in Fabbri is a tremendous vote of confidence.
Now all that’s left is for Fabbri to find a way to prove he can be the player many once believed he could be. That’s far easier said than done, but you can rest assured that he’ll be given the chance with the Red Wings. Maybe that’s all he needs.
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