Part of Montreal’s overhaul at the minor-league level, Nikita Jevpalovs comes to the Montreal Canadiens organization looking to find some stability in his young professional career. After two less-than-impressive QMJHL seasons, he exploded for a 100-point campaign in his final year under head coach Joël Bouchard. That final season caught the eye of the San Jose Sharks, who signed the Latvian forward to a three-year entry-level deal in 2015.
His transition to the professional game would not be an easy one, as in his first complete season with the Sharks' AHL club he managed a paltry five goals and nine assists in 60 games. In that same season, he also played in five ECHL contests, tallying six points and finding himself in a bit of a frustrating position: he could clearly handle the ECHL and had the talent to play at over a point-per-game pace, but at the AHL level he struggled to find any amount of consistency.
His second full year saw him nearly triple his goal total overall, but he still failed to become a steady offensive threat, posting just 21 points. Of those, 15 were primary (goal or first assist) which is a good sign for a player in his role.
He became more trusted by his coach to play all three forward positions, and was able to be utilized in any number of defensive situations. Even if his offence wasn’t always there, his off-puck play was.
Despite these improvements, Jevpalovs headed home to his native Latvia, joining Dinamo Riga of the KHL for the entirety of last season. His homecoming did little to help him find his offensive game, as he managed just eight points in 46 games played. The club did finish with just 16 wins in 56 games, and the second-worst point total in the entire KHL.
He now joins a Rocket organization swimming in both veteran talent and youthful players looking to make an impact. At just 23 years old, he’s still very much a prospect, and on an AHL contract there’s no risk involved in Montreal bringing him in.
It will not be an easy road for the Latvian forward, as the Rocket look to be stacked up and down the lineup at centre, and on the wings as well.
In Junior, he put his body to good use, combining his size with quick hands and smarts to help drive the Armada’s offence all year long. Upon joining the professional ranks there was one major hurdle still facing Jevpalovs: his skating needed improvement. His AHL coach, Roy Sommers, still trusted the young forward in a defensive role where his high-energy style served him well. He made some strides in improving his skating, but like many young players it’s something that will likely be a continuous process.
So why spend time looking into what looks like a depth addition for a loaded AHL roster, especially one on a minor-league-only deal? It’s quite simple: the best seasons in his career came under Joël Bouchard in Blainville-Boisbriand, and being reunited with his old coach could be just what the Latvian needs.
While Jevpalovs showed some growth in his offensive game under Jean-Francois Houle for the Armada, when Bouchard took over behind the bench he saw a 46-point jump, including 21 more goals and 25 more assists. Outside of Danick Martel, there was not another true star on that Armada team, meaning both he and Jevpalovs were the driving forces.
He likely won’t have to be a leading man for the Rocket, but Bouchard tapping into the potential that allowed Jevpalovs to hit a triple-digit point total gives the team a more-than-capable depth addition. That is the name of the game in the AHL, where three-game weekends and plenty of travel requires teams to have quality replacements at all times.
At just 23 years old, Jevpalovs is hitting what should be the prime years of his career, but he hasn’t come close to becoming that NHL player. That doesn’t mean he isn’t still a useful player if Bouchard can re-ignite his offensive game.
It’s not a guaranteed thing, but after years of offensively challenged grinders — players whose sole purpose was to hit and nothing else — bringing in a player with Jevpalovs’ upside is a smart move. He has the skills in his repertoire to be more than just a defensive forward, but he has a limited window to show that he can utilize them regularly at the professional level.
There is still something to be made of Jevpalovs, but he’ll have to take a major step forward this year and prove that. If he can’t, it was a low-risk move for Montreal to bring him in. If he progresses and discovers some of his offence, then the Canadiens and Rocket have found themselves another young player to add to their suddenly growing prospect pool.