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A case for Jake and Juraj?

Could Juraj Slafkovský find a stable centre in an unlikely candidate?

NHL: Calgary Flames at Montreal Canadiens David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

Almost 30 games into Juraj Slafkovský’s first season, it’s apparent that the first overall selection can not only hold his own at the NHL level, but he’s ready to take on more responsibilities.

Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St-Louis has responded, elevating the rookie to a line alongside Josh Anderson and Jake Evans. Slafkovský’s move into the top-9 though raises a question: who is best suited to centre the young Slovak as he continues his carefully managed development?

Slafkovský’s promotion comes at a curious time for the Canadiens when it comes to centre depth. The top line is set in stone, so that renders Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach unavailable. Sean Monahan is currently injured, while Christian Dvorak’s role is perhaps too defence-centric for Slafkovský to really stretch his legs and spread his wings. Finally, the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Rem Pitlick, at this point, are more or less pinch-hitters to complete the roster rather than regular centremen.

That leaves Jake Evans.

At season’s start, Evans was probably no one’s first, second, or even third choice for a centre to cultivate Slafkovský’s offensive game. The 2014 seventh-rounder is largely considered a servicable defensive specialist with limited offensive driving capability. Still, with the Slovak ready for more ice-time and the Canadiens short on centres, Evans was arguably the default option to follow Slafkovský up in the lineup.

Necessity, the adage goes, is the mother of innovation.

The thing is, Evans and Slafkovský have actually spent a lot of time together — roughly 53% of Slafkovský’s 5-on-5 ice time prior to this Tuesday has been spent beside Evans. Sure, most of that was in a fourth-line capacity, but the two had built up a notable body of work, especially compared to the Habs’ other fourth-line options.

Note: Data does not include games against the Calgary Flames (12/12/22) or Ottawa Senators (12/14/22)

A further point in Evans’ favour is that he has experience playing with skill players and/or in the top half of the lineup. Evans’ coming out party was during the 2021 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where he sat on Phillip Danault’s wing prior to being needlessly blindsided by Mark Scheifele. Moreover, he’s played well this year with Mike Hoffman and last year with Artturi Lehkonen.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising that Evans’ debut audition alongside Slafkovský and Anderson wasn’t bad at all. Against the Calgary Flames, most of the attention focused on how Anderson and Slafkovský linked up for the Canadiens’ only goal in regulation, but Evans also quietly acted as the glue that held the line together. Not only that, Evans also did yeoman’s work on the penalty kill and took a regular double-shift after Cole Caufield left the game en route to a season-high 22:04 ice time.

The final line for the trio at 5-on-5: 73.33% CF share, 70.00 SF% share, 77.83% xGF share, a goal for, none against. Not too shabby.

Just to show that it wasn’t a one-off, the trio came back and proved their value against the Ottawa Senators as well. While it’s hard to say anyone in the Tricolore actually had a good game on a night where the Canadiens barely showed up for the second frame, the Slafkovský-Evans-Anderson trio still managed to stay in the green when it came to 5-on-5 possession metrics. Evans himself was probably Montreal’s best player, posting a team leading 86.94% 5-on-5 xGF share and creating the goal that would spark a furious Canadiens comeback attempt in the third period.

From a tactical perspective, its not hard to see how Evans fits with his more offensive-minded linemates. Both Slafkovský and Anderson are north-south players who thrive with the puck. Evans’ presence as a safety valve not only gives his wingers the puck touches that they need, but also provides them with the freedom to take risks and make moves without worrying about exposing the team to opposition transition attacks. At the same time, Evans provides more bursts of acceleration and neutral zone aggression than the likes of a Dvorak, helping Anderson and Slafkovský create transition attacks with more available time and space. Evans is also better than Dvorak on the forecheck down low, as demonstrated by the goal that he created vs. Ottawa.

At this juncture, it’s unclear whether Evans will hold his position as Slafkovský’s centre when Monahan returns to the lineup. However, he’s more than earned it for the time being, and given that Monahan’s long-term prospects with Montreal are still unclear, having Evans and Slafkovský develop some chemistry while bolstering the forward corps’ depth is far from a bad thing.

All data from Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise indicated.