Just like Michael McCarron two seasons ago, a switch from right wing to centre was the spark that ignited Jake Evans' rapid upward development curve.
Evans' 33 points in 37 games were second on the team for the University of Notre Dame, an accomplishment made even more impressive when considering he carried a line of two freshmen in the first half. In the second half, Evans saw his role increase substantially, leapfrogging seniors Mario Lucia, Thomas Di Pauli, and Steven Fogarty in the process.
The 20-year-old sophomore emerged as one of Hockey East's top playmakers, despite his young age relative to his peers. While his power-play production was quite unimpressive, his even-strength and primary assists per game ranked first and second among HE sophomores, respectively.
Evans saw the greatest difference in his highest and lowest vote of any player on the ranking, with Andrew ranking him 13th and Patrik 39th. Four members of the panel voted him in the top 17, while six ranked him 26th or lower.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Evans was ranked 35th in his two appearances in the ranking. He was an afterthought in last year's T25U25, ranking behind Connor Crisp and Josiah Didier, despite his quietly solid campaign. With a breakout 2015-16 campaign, he makes a big leap in this year's T25U25 from #35 to #20.
Playmaking is Evans' calling card, and will likely be his best tool if he makes it to the NHL. Not particularly flashy with his passes, he routinely connects with difficult transfers across the ice. He thrives while working against the grain — a unique skill — and in tight spaces, making him particularly deadly in sustained pressure scenarios.
He owns a bevy of complementary tools to his playmaking: deceptive east-west movement, smooth hands, full-body fakes, and never-ending patience. He seemingly plays the game at one speed, yet little fakes and quick changes in direction create space for him to operate.
The biggest area of progression has been his defensive game. His positioning gives him a knack for intercepting passes and disrupting the puck carrier at just the right time. His team-leading 57% win rate in the faceoff dot made him the top option for Notre Dame down the stretch. Perhaps the most encouraging element is that he doesn't spend much time defending, thanks to his ability to play in transition.
Aside from playmaking, none of his physical tools particularly stand out. He's neither an explosive skater, nor exceptional with his edge work. He's not particularly successful at winning puck battles, and sometimes avoids them altogether, but he does draw a surprising amount of penalties.
The biggest concern with Evans is his lack of offensive diversity, stemming from his lack of goal-scoring. The rare times he does shoot, he consistently hits the net and owns a fast release, but there's minimal power behind it. Even if his shot does improve he still doesn't demonstrate an instinctual ability to finish around the goal or get into high-scoring areas.
This shot deficiency makes his offensive game rather one-dimensional. As he advances up the ranks, he will mostly likely need to make his game more unpredictable, whether that be by adding a shot and/or cycling gears more often.
Notre Dame will experience a large roster turnover, with four of their top-six forwards not returning for this upcoming season: Mario Lucia, Sam Herr, Thomas Di Pauli, and Steven Fogarty. Evans will presumably become the de facto top centre, playing on the first unit in all situations. Expecting a significant improvement in his production would therefore be unrealistic, but even a repeat of what he did this season would be a success.
His playmaking and bevy of complementary tools give him a shot at becoming a scoring third-line forward in the NHL. I believe his playmaking ability is second-line level, but just one dimension most likely won't be good enough to make him a scorer in the NHL. Adding more diversity to his game could be the difference between him becoming an AHLer or NHLer.
Evans certainly has a long road ahead of him until he gets a shot at the NHL, but he does have time on his side. As a 20-year-old junior this upcoming season, he will be just 22 when he's ready for his first professional season.