Few Montreal Canadiens forwards benefited from the exodus of centers Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi as much as Jake Evans. As a result, he could quasi-realistically be poised for a breakout season… even offensively speaking.
In some ways, a simple breakout season, period, would suffice, considering Evans is hardly an established veteran. However, having played 47 of 56 regular-season games in 2020-21, it’s fair to say Evans is at the very least a safe bet to make the team out of training camp and become a fixture in the lineup. It’s just a question of where exactly.
Danault’s Departure Is Evans’ Gain
With Danault and Kotkaniemi gone, a top-nine-center spot has conveniently opened up, with the newly acquired Christian Dvorak set to fill the other. That remaining spot could be ripe for Evans’ taking. Even if he’s seen as somewhat of a bottom-six-caliber forward, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
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Think of it as somewhat of a balancing act, between giving Evans too much and too little credit. On one hand, Evans earned the trust of the Canadiens’ coaching staff, earning a regular shift on the team’s top line, for all intents and purposes, on the left of Danault and Brendan Gallagher during the playoffs (when he wasn’t out of the lineup with a concussion, anyway). So, why can’t that spot be Evans’?
On the other hand though, it’s unlikely Evans was some sort of puppet master, pulling the strings to get Danault to sign with the Los Angeles Kings and then Kotkaniemi to sign a controversial offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes. Logically speaking, Evans isn’t some kind of criminal mastermind, although the fact that he did effectively move up three lines and then to the wing to take over on the Danault line for a healthy Tomas Tatar should at the very least give people pause. Ultimately though, no, don’t give him too much credit.
Regardless, everyone knows that Nick Suzuki has got the No. 1 center spot locked up tighter than a bank safe. He’s earned it. Meanwhile, Dvorak will be given every opportunity to prove he’s at least a short-term upgrade on Kotkaniemi. The picks general manager Marc Bergevin gave up to acquire him make that as predictable as snow in April in Montreal. Sad but true.
Evans Between Gallagher and Hoffman?
That takes us to the third-center spot, which is where it gets interesting. Assuming Suzuki continues to center Tyler Toffoli and Cole Caufield and Dvorak centers Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, between whom he notched four points against the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this week, that leaves a very offensively capable Brendan Gallagher and Mike Hoffman as supposed third-line wingers.
Ironically Gallagher and Hoffman are the kind of linemates that might have convinced Danault to stay and continue to play an offensive role on this team. After all, he was already Gallagher’s linemate for the last few seasons. More to the point, as mentioned above, so was Evans these past playoffs.
While Evans and offense have kind of had a will-they, won’t-they thing going on reminiscent of a cheesy television sitcom, he has produced at lower levels, even showing flashes with the Habs last season. Granted, his three goals and 13 points won’t draw much attention, but, hypothetically centering a triggerman in Hoffman and a perennial 30-goal threat in Gallagher, he really just needs to take faceoffs (50.1 last season) and be a defensively aware third wheel. Tricycles are a thing. Look it up.
Evans vs. Poehling
Of course, Ryan Poehling remains in the discussion, conceivably poised to not just see NHL action in 2021-22, but make an impact all the while. He’s still waiver-exempt, which affords the Habs a degree of flexibility, should he fail to prove he’s ready for a full-time NHL job this training camp. So does Evans.
If Poehling does make the team out of training camp, and every sign points to the Canadiens giving him as many chances as possible to do so, it would imply a desire on the part of the Habs to put him in a position to succeed. In such an instance, that third-line role is a great assignment for him to land. Any plummer, it would be growing on a tree. However, Evans seems just as likely to grab a hold of a brass ring. At the very least, he’s aware he has more to offer.
Admittedly, Evans has been deployed in role consistent with a bottom-six forward this preseason. He’s already played between prospect Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Joel Armia and practiced between those same players in preparation for the team’s weekend games against the Ottawa Senators.
However, two things should be pointed out. Firstly, that barring injury it’s unlikely both Harvey-Pinard and Poehling make the Habs out of training camp, meaning that line, like every other, is far from set in stone.
Evans vs. Armia
Secondly, Armia has developed into a fringe member of this team’s core over the last few seasons. He’s always been a complementary piece, but his versatility has earned him the trust of the coaching staff, leading him to be played up and down the lineup, scoring 16 goals and 30 points in 58 games in 2019-20.
Those totals translate to over 20 goals and 40 points over 82 games. Armia may have taken a step back from a productivity standpoint last season, but the Habs still re-signed him to a healthy contract this summer, evidencing his overall worth to the organization.
Evans may not have the exact same skillset, but Armia’s career trajectory is something to which he can realistically aspire. Evans’ deployment these past playoffs meanwhile hint at that same level of trust being placed him in as we speak.
So, it would be unwise to write Evans or a hypothetical jump in point production in 2021-22 off just yet. He may not be a favorite to capture that theoretical third-line spot right now, but he seems to always find a way to get to that next step in his development. The next step in this case is obvious. From a points perspective he has only one way to go from here.