The Montreal Canadiens started the 2020-21 season with two rookies on their roster. Through the first five games, Alexander Romanov and Jake Evans have looked like anything but. However, their roads to the NHL could not have been more different.
While Romanov ascended quickly up the prospect rankings (both for the Canadiens and league-wide), Evans took the slow road.
At 24 years old, Evans is on the older side to be a rookie. In fact, of the 62 rookies to play a game in the 2020-21 NHL season, only 12 are older. He is closer in age to Jonathan Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen, in their seventh and fifth NHL seasons respectively, than he is to Romanov. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, in his third NHL season, is four years younger.
The 207th overall pick in the 2014 Draft spent four years in the NCAA, and then a full year in the AHL before making his NHL debut. That is incredible in itself, but when you look deeper it is a story of a player willing to do whatever it took.
Coming from the NCAA, where he was the captain of the University of Notre Dame, he made his professional debut in 2018-19 after signing his entry-level contract, and was at the team’s rookie camp in preparation for what was supposed to be his first NHL training camp.
However, his first game saw him leave Place Bell on a stretcher to the hospital. The concussion he suffered would keep him out of the team’s NHL training camp.
If that seemed like an inauspicious start to his professional career, in the words of Laval Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard, “It went up from there.”
Player development is often not a straight line. There are ebbs and flows for most players. Players who spent their entire hockey lives as the best on their team, or in their league, can get humbled once they turn professional. Often players don’t realize it, but it’s the first of many fight or flight choices they will encounter in professional hockey.
“What you see as ups and downs, I just see it as up for him,” Bouchard said about Evans’s development. “I don’t see it as downs. He had adversity, like every player will.”
“The reason it went up was because he was all ears on everything we told him,” Bouchard said. “I was hard on him, probably harder than anyone else because I saw something, some potential, but I also saw a partnership in changing his style of play.”
Evans’s first year in the AHL was also Bouchard’s first as coach of the Rocket. In a way, it was the perfect match, a coach and a player both trying to prove themselves. Like a coach who may have had to adjust to coaching professional players, Evans had to realize he also had to change his game to get to the next level.
When Bouchard talks about Evans when he started his pro career, it’s nearly imperceptible from the player currently wearing #71 for the Canadiens.
“You talk about [him] in college, [he was] a guy who was a quarterback on the half-wall on the power play, who was always used in offensive situations,” Bouchard said. “He didn’t play much PK and then we told him, ‘If you want to play in the NHL, you’re not going to play on the first power play. You’re going to have to play a 200-foot game. You’re going to have to be hard. You’re going to have to work on your shot. Your shot wasn’t good enough.’ It was a long list.”
That was when Evans had to make a choice. True to form, Bouchard tried to turn it into a teachable moment for others.
“This could go two ways. This is important, if there are any kids: When a coach gives you a list of things to improve, you can go ‘I’m good enough, he doesn’t know’ or you can say ‘You know what? Let’s get better.’ And that’s what he did.”
That doesn’t mean it was a linear progression. The adversity the coach talked about was still going to come. When Evans started his AHL career, he had two points through his first eight games. Bouchard said it was hard for him to put Evans on the ice at times early on.
“It’s pace,” Bouchard said. “When I talk about pace, I mean his engagement in the game, his pop, the way he would jump was [really] low. [...] It was a work in progress. But I liked the sense, I liked the vision, I liked the way he processed the game, but his biggest thing is he accepted to change.”
Evans ended his first season with 15 points in the final 14 games of the 2018-19 AHL season. Of those 14 games, he was held pointless in only three.
The adversity he faced didn’t end in his first AHL season. Just over a year ago, in November, the Toronto native was struggling. He has a great start to his season, but the production wasn’t there. Through 17 games, he had four points, all assists. The frustration from not producing saw bad habits creep into his game.
The morning of November 16, Bouchard told Evans that he would be a healthy scratch to reset. While the forward was putting in an on-ice workout because he wasn’t going to play, Charles Hudon was called up by the Canadiens.
As soon as Evans got off the ice, the coach told him he would be playing. He scored an empty-net goal in the team’s win that afternoon for his first of the season, and it turned his entire year around.
Not only was Joël Bouchard the first person to greet Jake Evans at the bench after his first goal of the season, he also made sure to do this when he sat down. pic.twitter.com/bVH1FhlrIz— Jared Book (@jaredbook) November 17, 2019
“I tip my hat to Jake because there was never ‘Yes, but...’, there was never ‘I’m not sure that...’, ‘That’s not my style...’, ‘That’s not the way I want to play.’ It was always ‘You’re right coach, I have to be better,’” Bouchard said.
“And that’s why I was able to push him, to push him, to push him and give him lessons on and off the ice. Jake was always all ears, there was never complaining.”
When the 2019-20 season was suspended because of the pandemic, Evans was in the NHL with the Canadiens after they traded Nate Thompson. In the post-season, he only played the third game of the four-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then, after sitting out the first game against the Philadelphia Flyers, he would become the team’s fourth-line centre for the remaining five contests.
When Max Domi was traded during the off-season, it solidified Evans’s spot on the team. The experience in the post-season allowed Canadiens coach Claude Julien to get a closer look on his development, and he started the season not only next to Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron, but also as one of the team’s penalty-killers.
Evans has seen his ice time increase by almost two minutes a game from his time in the previous regular season (and even more from his decreased ice time in the playoffs). Only two Canadiens forwards have played more time on the penalty kill, and Evans finds himself second in the entire NHL in individual short-handed scoring chances with four.
“He responded really well,” Julien said about the increased role he gave Evans this season. “The one thing I like about him is that every game he’s shown more and more maturity, experience, and adjustments, and I can see this guy getting better all the time. [...] He’s already earned my trust.”
“There’s a lot to like about Jake Evans.”
Julien also pointed out that he didn’t even have to worry when his line was put up against top players on the other team, like Connor McDavid’s. That goes back to what Evans was able to do at the AHL level.
“When you [talk about] guys [who] become pros and all of a sudden they have success ... they weren’t big names and they weren’t big draft picks ... Jake Evans was exactly that,” Bouchard said. “There was never a complaint. Never, never, never. Even when we had discussions about his game it was always ‘You’re right coach, it’s not good enough, I need to be better.’”
“This is a great story for the organization but it’s all Jake. He holds the stick and he’s the one who bought in and that’s the difference.”
The praise didn’t stop there.
“I have never seen a player transform that much to become the way he has,” Bouchard said.
Don’t for a second think that just because he’s no longer coached by Bouchard, that Evans won’t hear from the Rocket head coach. Especially now that the two teams share a home building.
“He’s not done yet. I still talk to him. He’s gotta keep going or he’s going to hear it.”