Following Jake Evans with the Catching The Torch series over his last two years in college, I never really doubted the prospect’s talent for reading, anticipating, and connecting plays. His playmaking touch led to many successful campaigns with Notre Dame, including one where he sat atop the NCAA leaderboard for a couple of months. What I did mention as a weakness more than once, however, was Evans’s skating ability, specifically his explosiveness.
The change in his skating over the past couple of years has been staggering. Looking back to his first seasons with Notre Dame, Evans hunched over as he skated up ice. It sent his feet kicking the air at the completion of each stride, slowing down his recovery and next push. He still has some quirky skating mechanics, but strength training polished his overall stride. And now, incredibly, he looks like one of the better skaters in Montreal’s lineup.
More than his speed, however, it’s the centre’s motor that has undergone the most development.
The demands of the condensed schedule, the multiple high-intensity games where Evans received shutdown duties, had erased a bit of his energy in the weeks before the unexpected off week. The centreman faded into the background, the extra gear that made him so effective in the playoff bubble and the start of the season having abandoned him. But against the Senators on Thursday night, you saw him bring back his focus and fast tempo. The night rapidly turned into his best NHL performance.
Evans was especially noticeable on the penalty kill. Games can easily swing one way or the other during the last minute of a period. Quite often, a team retreats to the dressing room with momentum while the other one is faced with an uphill battle. Montreal, up 1-0, was going to be that empowered team, but a late penalty offered the Senators a chance to get back in the game.
With 20 seconds left, Evans completely quashed their hopes. He intercepted Ottawa’s neutral-zone drive, pressured the entry, and forced a rushed pass from an opponent at the top of the zone. The disc rolled through the neutral-zone — a prime target for Paul ‘‘Rocket Feet’’ Byron. He sprung at his opposition, won possession, and almost connected with Evans, who, powering through his strides, had also managed to beat the line of defence.
This sequence set the table for two other strong periods for Evans. Both of them featured a timely and skillful spin-pass, giving him his fourth and fifth assists of the season. You can see them both in the video above, if you missed them. The first one is especially noteworthy due to the prior dangle he pulled off against an overenthusiastic Tim Stützle. The Sens rookie thought he had the angle on the Habs centre, but it turned out Evans doesn’t only grind opponents, but also threads the puck through them, given the chance.
Evans’s formula for success in the NHL is the same as it was in the AHL: high energy and positionally sound play to create counter-attacks and rush opportunities. That leads to confidence and offensive creativity.
As for many other young players, it’s all about finding consistency for Evans. Turning one great shift a period into two great shifts, then three, then four, until he can, more often than not, get the upper hand on the opposition. Then he has to repeat those performances game after game, even as the season extends and his battery drains.
I have no doubt that Evans becomes that steady presence for a team, be it in Montreal or another city. That being said, with the arrival of Eric Staal, he may not have an occasion to work his play as much until the end of the campaign. Evans isn’t only a single-season project, however. Montreal has to show patience. It will take time before we can see him chain performances like the ones against the Senators.
The flip side of the current depth of the team is that, by rotating in and out of the lineup, Evans might be able to weaponize rest; come out fresh and revving, making the most of his appearances.
No matter what happens going forward, such a performance at crunch time, with his spot on the line, could become a stepping stone for Evans’s development, showing him what he is capable of in this league. That he is right to believe in not just his defensive abilities, but also his offensive ones. The Habs might need those before the end of the season.