Jake Evans is a player who has slowly but surely caught the eye of the hockey world. The Toronto native originally got his start playing for the St. Michael’s Buzzers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, recording 63 points in 49 games in his final season with the team.
After entering the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Evans had to wait until the seventh round, when the Montreal Canadiens selected him 207th overall. Later that same year, he committed to the University of Notre Dame, where he had the benefit of playing alongside many current NHLers like Vinnie Hinostroza and Anders Bjork. In his time with the Fighting Irish, Evans earned a host of honors, including team captain, a Big Ten title, a Hobey Baker Award nomination, and a high of 46 points in his senior season.
In the summer of 2018, Evans signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Canadiens, subsequently joining the newly formed Laval Rocket, who were coming off a disastrous first season under coach Sylvain Lefebvre. In 2018-19 however, under first-year head coach Joel Bouchard, Evans thrived in Laval, and earned the attention of the Canadiens, making his NHL debut this past season. He’s earned his role at every level thus far, but can he become a regular in Montreal? Let’s take a look.
The Laval Rocket have certainly seen their fare share of troubles over their first three seasons in the AHL. Under Lefebvre, the previous Canadiens affiliates in Hamilton and St. John’s didn’t manage much success, with a total of one playoff appearance in his six seasons as head coach. Fresh off back to back finals appearances with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL, Bouchard took a different approach for a Rocket team that struggled with roster issues.
Instead of basing Laval’s strategy on the star AHL players, Bouchard tends to rely more on depth players and defensive specialists. While this created a riff with AHL veterans Riley Barber and Phil Varone, younger players like Evans thrived under this team-first system. In his first year with the team, Evans slowly climbed his way up the depth chart as he earned Bouchard’s trust more and more. With 45 points in 67 games, he finished second on the team in scoring behind Alex Belzile, earning consistent minutes on the penalty kill and power play.
Risk and Reward
One of the things Evans has been praised for throughout his career is his consistency, having developed a reputation as a solid two-way player at nearly every level he’s played at. After a shaky first season with the Irish, Evans recorded 30 points or more in each of his next three seasons and was on pace for his second straight 40-point season with the Rocket this season.
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With 38 points in 51 games, Evans became the Rocket’s offensive leader after the departure of players like Barber and Varone, and the loss of Belzile to injuries for most of the season. He proved both a fine setup man on the power play to offensive players like Charles Hudon, and a fine penalty-kill compliment to defensive forwards like Kevin Lynch.
For the most part, Evans has been a player with little risks, and a high amount of rewards. As stated, Joel Bouchard can be a difficult coach for certain players to work with, but Evans seems to be thriving under his system, and it has enabled him to develop into a well-rounded player. He demonstrated this well in his short stint with the Canadiens, recording 3 points in 13 games while meshing with linemates Dale Weise and Paul Byron. For a Canadiens team that has been plagued with inconsistencies regarding their bottom six, Evans was a nice surprise, as the Canadiens winded down what they thought was a lost season.
Defensive Centre Depth
As good as Evans has been for the Canadiens and Rocket, he’s had to fight for his role, and try and stand out amongst a stacked group of defensive centres for the Canadiens. Despite their struggles, the Canadiens have gotten better and better with their drafting, and subsequent prospect development. Aside from Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who spent the last bit of this season in Laval, recording 13 points in 13 games, 2017 first-round pick Ryan Poehling fits into a similar role to Evans, while possessing a larger frame and, at the moment, higher ceiling overall.
2015 third-rounder Lukas Vejdemo went from being an afterthought for the Canadiens to a key penalty killer for the Rocket and legitimate bottom-six option for the Habs. While their top six prospects continue to run slim, despite glimmers of hope from Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, the Canadiens have their bottom-six sorted for the future, and while I believe Evans could be a part of said future, he’ll have to once again fight for his role, against players like Poehling and Vejdemo.
While Evans has played great at the AHL level thus far, any performance like this brings in naysayers who see him as just an AHL talent. One of the more interesting facets of the AHL is how most of their best players’ NHL careers have come and gone. Utica Comets forward Reid Boucher, who finished second in league scoring this year, is an NHL journeyman whose window is growing smaller and smaller at 26 years old. 2019-20 AHL MVP Gerald Mayhew was an undrafted free agent who spent the first few years of his career on AHL deals with the Iowa Wild before earning a contract with Minnesota.
While Evans AHL consistency is promising, it remains to be seen whether he can translate it into a consistent NHL role. Going back to Barber, while he played a key role for the Rocket this year before being traded, in nine games with Montreal, he disappeared, failing to record a single point without any of the offensive flair he showed in the AHL. At 24 years old, Evans still has time to break past this stigma, and his short stint with the Canadiens shows promise that he can be more than just an AHL star.
Evans has been one of the more intriguing players for the Canadiens this year, and his performance with the Rocket has shown his abilities as a solid two-way player. While the Canadiens have a large number of players similar to him, and it remains to be seen whether he can break past his AHL skillset into a legitimate NHL role, I think it would be in the Canadiens’ best interest to give Evans an extended look in a similar way to Poehling’s 27-game audition this year.
There’s a reason why he was a Hobey Baker Award nominee, and he’s shown it at almost every level he’s played at. Judging from his short cup of coffee this year, there’s a chance he can be this at the NHL level too, and give the Canadiens a reliable bottom six centre calling back to the days of Steve Begin. Of course, this all remains to be seen, but I still think Evans can become a regular for the Canadiens with the right seasoning and opportunities. It’s been a hard path to the pros for Evans, but I believe there’s a chance that one day, he can become an NHL regular.