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Jake Evans has gone from flawed seventh-rounder to trusted NHL forward

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The Canadiens’ rookie forward has seen a steady upward progression since being selected in 2014.

NHL: FEB 10 Coyotes at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A great attitude and a desire to learn are some of the most important attributes organizations want in their prospects, and especially those drafted in the latter rounds. Those players all have many flaws. In order to reach the NHL, they need an overhaul of big parts of their game. They need to be open-minded and realize the work it will take them to stay on a steep upward development curve as they push for a spot in the top league in the world.

Jake Evans made the jump to the NCAA from the Ontario Junior A Hockey League. He came in as a player who mostly had dominated through his individual abilities, and those weren’t enough to compete on the college ice with the Fighting Irish. His skating left him behind the play and his attempts to one-on-one defenders off the rush often resulted in his team scrambling back on defence.

Quite rapidly, Evans became the player the coaching staff relied on the most. Not necessarily because his abilities improved, but because he turned himself in a two-way forward who created offence by using his teammates. He showed himself to be clay Notre Dame could mould into what they most needed. A power-play or shutdown presence; a playmaker; a clutch goal-scorer. Evans did it all.

It’s why we only heard positive feedback in his development with the Laval Rocket. Joël Bouchard got a great project, someone who not only heard him, but worked to internalize his teachings. Someone who was adaptable, capable of changing his game to fit new environnements.

A little less that two years later, Evans treated everyone to this shift.

I admit I don’t follow the Laval Rocket as much (most of the coverage is handled by the great Scott Matla). But I did cover Evans in his Notre Dame days quite extensively through the Catching The Torch series, and watched most of his games at the college level. The Jake Evans in the clip above is not really the one I came to expect.

At the source of the play is the same hard-working mentality he displayed in his college days, but now it is complemented by a much quicker and stronger close-quarters game. He wins inside positioning (getting in between the net and his check, or the puck and his check) at every occasion. The extra gear and tenacity he added to his game directly resulted in his first goal at the NHL level.

He immediately gets on the puck; or better, he moves ahead of puck movements. He fits the grinding nature of the Habs’ bottom line by supporting his linemates very close to the wall, preventing the opponent from escaping with the puck if they manage to win a battle.

Evans also had time to display his other offensive abilities in the game against the Coyotes. He created a two-on-one after entering the offensive zone by spotting Jonathan Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen catching up to him on his left. He put on the brakes, spun around, and hit them in stride for a chance.

He also recognized a perfect opportunity to come down as the high forward in another offensive-zone sequence. It gave him a shot from the faceoff dot that grazed the crossbar.

With Phillip Danault now out for an indeterminate period of time, Montreal will need all of their centres to step up. It’s too early to give a big role to Evans, but he showed he could more than hold his own on the Habs’ bottom trio. If Nate Thompson is moved up to the third line, Evans could be trusted with minutes down the middle. It’s the position he naturally played at all levels of the game.

His ability to break the puck out from the boards against pinching NHL defenders isn’t up to the level of his teammates just yet, which is perfectly normal. He’s taking his first few steps in the league and is not as used to zone exits from the walls in a new role on the wing. It could be why he didn’t get regular five-on-five time in the third period.

Still, it does feel like Claude Julien trusts the newcomer and is eager to test him. He sent Evans to replace Danault on the power play, where the young forward acted as the bumper in the middle of the defensive box. The coaching staff also chose him to accompany Suzuki on the last penalty kill.

Two rookies defending a tied game, down a man in the dying minutes of game. Unusual, but exciting, and the development of the Habs’ young elements is one of the brighter themes of this season.