With an eye toward a college career from a young age, Jake Evans spent his teen years playing in the Ontario Junior Hockey League to maintain his NCAA eligibility. He performed well in that league, putting up 44 points in his first full season before contributing 16 goals and 47 assists in a 49-game 2013-14 campaign.
The Montreal Canadiens took a chance on the centreman with the 207th selection in the 2014 draft, waiting to see what type of player he could become after a four-year term at the University of Notre Dame.
Seeing little more to his game than what could be ascertained from his stat line, head coach Jeff Jackson placed Evans on the wing for his freshman season, and witnessed his new charge put up a respectable yet unremarkable 17 points.
Evans’ sophomore campaign in 2015-16 came with a return to his natural centre position, and he responded by doubling the previous season’s point total while taking on more responsibilities. It was an important year for the Toronto-native as he learned the ins and outs of the game in the defensive zone, getting a fair share of time in the face-off dot throughout the year.
By the start of 2016-17, he had become a strong two-way player for the team. He earned time on the top line, matching up against the opposition’s best. As it had the previous year, his offensive game grew despite the tougher challenge he was presented, setting new highs in both goals and assists. He was one of just 14 players in the Hockey East Association to reach a point-per-game rate.
He hit the scoresheet with regularity, going no more than three games without a point, and that coming in the first third of the season. He was held off the scoresheet just four times in the final 20 games he played as the Fighting Irish battled for a top playoff spot and ultimately made it as far as the NCAA Tournament’s Frozen Four.
Not only was he piling up points, including ending the post-season run on a three-game point streak, but he was directly setting up his team’s offence. He finished the year tied for eighth among all Division I players in primary assists; fourth if you limit the sample to players with no more experience than their junior year.
Evans was excluded from a top-25 position on just three ballots and given a spot in the top 15 on five others. The five-place difference between the EOTP community vote and Evans’ official standing at #16 is the largest such discrepancy for any player making the Top 25.
Top 25 Under 25 History
|2014: #35||2015: #35||2016: #20|
In his first two years of eligibility, Evans finished 35th, not receiving a single top 25 vote after his freshman season in 2015. His offensive outburst and significant overall improvement allowed him to jump 15 spots to #20 last year; the largest change for 2016 and one of the biggest leaps in the eight-year history of this project. (Though it was outdone by a rise this year....)
Just looking at his point totals, it’s clear that Evans is a good passer. He’s able to set up so many goals with a strong set of complementary skills.
He’s not afraid to try a creative pass through traffic, and that alone separates him from players who are hesitant to make a risky play, opting to keep the puck along the perimeter. He boosts his odds with a patient approach, waiting for the defender to make the first move and finding the lane that that commitment opens up.
He gets a lot behind his passes so there’s little chance for defencemen to knock them away, and not much time for a goaltender to adjust to a new angle. He can launch passes from anywhere in the offensive zone, and is just as proficient on his backhand as his forehand, so there’s no time wasted changing positions once he gets control of the puck.
He finished tied with teammate Anders Bjork atop the Hockey East list with 13 third-period assists, and led the entire NCAA in assists while his team was trailing. You don’t get the opportunity to claim those titles unless you have the confidence of the coaching staff to be deployed in key situations, and that’s something Evans has earned after the rapid development of his defensive game.
He is put out on the ice with the game on the line, entrusted to either create a goal for his side or keep the opposition off the scoresheet. He has good positioning in his own zone, giving his defencemen an option for the breakout and helping out in puck battles.
His main contribution to the defensive game is his face-off prowess. With draws split almost evenly between Evans, Steven Fogarty and Connor Hurley last season, it was the Habs prospect who finished with the best winning percentage, at 56.9%.
Last season there was no even distribution of face-off duties. Evans took almost 900 draws in the 40 games he played and was fourth in the conference, and 20th in Division I play, in success rate at 57.9%.
While he has shown some good hand skills and the ability to stickhandle in traffic, he rarely looks to score a goal himself, opting to move the puck to a teammate the vast majority of the time.
After 63 shots in his freshman year he put just 55 on goal in 2015-16. With that kind of volume, defenders can cheat toward just taking away the passing lanes, thereby limiting Evans’ best offensive asset.
He took a big step in that area last season as well, doubling his shot total to 110, and seeing an increase in his goals as a result. He isn’t a natural goal-scorer, but showing he is willing to put the puck on net himself will help to open up his offensive options and keep the opposition on its toes.
His stick was also used in an attempt to slow the opposition down, taking a number of hooking, slashing, and tripping penalties. His season record also included three boarding minors and a major and misconduct for a hitting-from-behind infraction.
His 47 penalty minutes in 40 games isn’t an alarmingly high total, but it does stand out on what was the second-least penalized team in the conference last year, as only one player spent more time in the box. Whether that indiscipline is the result of chasing the game and being forced into desperation plays, or simply the result of over-engaging in one-on-one battles on the ice (as Alexander Radulov was guilty of last season), it’s something he’ll need to address to have a positive impact in the professional ranks.
Evans was able to showcase his talents at the Canadiens’ development camp in early July, looking very good when paired with another of the top playmakers in the system, Nikita Scherbak.
With his senior season about to begin, he could be back in Montreal as early as this spring when his four-year collegiate career comes to an end. He will need to sign his entry-level contract to play with the Canadiens, but given the organization’s current centre situation, the prospect of getting at least some spot duty on the NHL roster after the trade deadline should be seen as a beneficial move by both team and player.
To get that opportunity Evans will need to have a steady year with Notre Dame as they transition into the Big Ten, establishing himself as a top two-way centre and taking another step in his offensive game.
There is a chance that he will be able to take a regular NHL lineup spot in the near future, but in what capacity is yet to be determined. With good defensive play, faceoff prowess, excellent offensive awareness and passing skills, and the ability to perform well in any game situation, he has a lot of the tools a team could want in a top-six centre, but his low goal totals may place his ceiling at a third-line role.
Even if that is as high as Jake Evans gets at the NHL level, it will be a testament to just how much he was able to develop his game in the NCAA, and an excellent return on one of the final picks in the 2014 draft.
Stats via College Hockey Inc.