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Laval Rocket season review: Jake Evans is an NHL player in the making

One of the top rookies in the AHL battled through a scary start to his career to put together a successful first season.

Club de Hockey Canadien

Jake Evans entered the last off-season full of momentum, having completed his time at Notre Dame of the NCAA and signing his contract to join the Montreal Canadiens organization. Going into the rookie camp, many fans were excited to see how his game would translate to the professional level. Unfortunately, they had to wait a little longer for that.

In a game at the 2018 Rookie Showdown, Evans took a high hit that resulted in him cracking his head off the ice and being knocked unconscious. The resulting concussion cost Evans the rest of his pre-season, and marked a setback before his rookie year had even begun.

Once he was healthy enough to play, however, he hit the ground running. Evans put together one of the best rookie seasons in the AHL this year. With 45 points in 67 games, it was a solid year on a team that lacked real starpower for most of the campaign, and at any given time had close to a dozen rookies playing.

Evans, like all the other young players under Joël Bouchard’s watch, had to earn his spot in the lineup. Starting in the bottom six with some time on the power play, he worked his way into the top-line centre role and never really looked back. While not possessing the high-end skill of someone like Nick Suzuki, Evans rounded into being a fantastic playmaker for the Rocket by year’s end, and a driving force on offence, especially on the power play.

Patient in finding passing lanes yet aggressive in getting pucks toward the net, a partnership with Daniel Audette and Alex Belzile brought out the best in the rookie’s game. Once that line was put together, Evans began to shine as an offensive force, and started to put together highlight-worthy plays on a regular basis, even if the team still had its struggles.

His blossoming into a more complete playmaker brought out the best professional season to date for both Audette and Belzile, with the latter recently signing his first NHL deal as a result.

Evans is more than capable of burying the puck on his own. As the season progressed he learned how to find space to create goals for himself. Despite not being the biggest guy, he lived right in the dangerous areas around the net and the slot, and was often able to slip his coverage to create chances for himself. The same patience he shows in finding passing lanes can also apply to his goal-scoring, as he will wait to find openings before firing shots on net.

His head is up the entire way, seeing how defenders are moving, then a quick fake and laser wrist shot through a screened goalie results in a goal. Much like we saw from fellow rookie Cale Fleury this year, this sort of patience with the puck led to more goals than what they or others achieved by just firing it at the first opportunity.

The year wasn’t without its down points though, most notably in terms of injuries. He missed the final few weeks of action, one of the many players sidelined down the stretch. He is not what some would call injury prone, but with this past season’s history it is worth making sure that he does not feel the ill effects of those ailments later on in his career.

He has plenty of competition for a position at the NHL level, and even his minor-league spot is not penned in with the influx of centre prospects this year and next. One benefit for him is that Bouchard does not just dole out roles based on player pedigree; everyone has to earn their spot, like Evans did this year. So while Ryan Poehling and Suzuki likely have a higher ceiling, they’ll need to show they’re better at the professional level to supplant Evans right now.

A full professional year playing in every conceivable role for Laval has helped Evans firmly establish himself as a player with NHL potential. He can run the power play from between the circles or the point. He can also take over duties as a lead penalty-killer.

With his skill set and playing ability he should be first in line for a potential NHL call-up in case of an injury or trade in 2019-20. He won’t be alone in competing for those spots with the aforementioned Poehling and Suzuki on his heels, while Lukas Vejdemo and a host of CHL prospects are all lurking as well. Evans has said that to be the best player possible he has to take whatever role he’s given and do the best he can there, and clearly that is what happened this season.

The centre position is loaded up at the AHL level, and even in a rough season for the Rocket, Evans showed many fans why he should be staying in the prospect spotlight for some time to come.