As a seventh-round pick in 2014, Jake Evans has already exceeded all expectations. For a player ranked that low to go through four NCAA seasons and earn an NHL contract, it is already a huge win for the Montreal Canadiens.
Evans had a rough start to his NCAA career, which is normal for freshmen and it is the only year of his tenure that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish did not make the Frozen Four tournament.
But he improved in his second year (incidentally when the team moved him to centre) and every year after becoming a part of the leadership group in his Junior and Senior seasons. He was the captain last year when the team made the National Championship game for only the second time in school history and the first time since 2008.
Evans was instrumental in the final appearance scoring the winning goal with under five seconds remaining, beating first-round pick Quinn Hughes in front of the net.
Evans ended that game with two goals and an assist in the 4-3 win. He had two goals and four assists in the tournament’s four games.
After his NCAA career ended on April 7, he signed his entry level contract just two days later. He will get his first taste of NHL training camp and pre-season this year. He could also play in the rookie tournament as he missed on-ice drills at development camp after hernia surgery in May.
Jake Evans is likely the player with the most consensus so far with five panellists, including the EOTP community, placing him in 12th - the spot he ended up in the rankings.
He also received one 11th place and one 13th place vote. His highest vote of ninth and lowest at 25th were supplemented by five other votes in the top-20.
Top 25 Under 25 History
No player has ever moved up more over their T25U25 tenure than Evans, clinching the top spot this year as his #12 is 23 spots higher than his #35 ranking in his first two years in the ranking. (For those wondering, he passed Martin Réway, who had top spot with a 21 place career increase).
Part of the reason was that Evans was a seventh round pick in 2014, players we usually think of as afterthoughts. What he did is improve steadily to the point he has and the last three years has really made a name for himself to the point of earning an NHL contract with a lot of upside.
Evans is a centre who has a lot of intriguing offensive abilities. He is a playmaker first, looking for opportunities for his teammates rather than scoring himself.
Which is good, because his vision is probably his most noticeable strength. He can find teammates in all situations, and likes to go “against the grain” and catch the opponent and goaltender going the wrong way. In fact he seems to fit in perfectly with the organization’s mindset of getting players who can create scoring chances for their teammates.
He has shot the puck a lot more than he did early in his career. After just 55 shots on goal in the 2015-16 season, he doubled that amount in only three more games in 2016-17 with 110 and then had 111 this past season.
Evans has a quick release and good shot so he should use it more.
He’s also shown a knack for getting goals in key situations. Evans had 13 goals, and two of them were the first goal of the game and five others were the game winning goals.
Evans is also lauded for his two-way game, being depended on as Notre Dame’s top centre last season and used in all situations. He may not step into a penalty killing role immediately at the professional level, but he had two short handed goals this past season in the NCAA, and at even strength shows all the tools to be a centre at the next level.
For all the talk about Evans’s playmaking, the knock on him, like I alluded to with the shots on goal, was that he didn’t take his own shots. But that part of the game has clearly improved and will remain an important thing to look at going forward.
Another issue with Evans is that none of his physical tools stand out. At the NHL level, if you don’t have an elite tool, you may struggle but that’s a bit more nitpicking than an actual weakness.
He isn’t a bad skater but he’s not a great one either. On the defensive end of the ice he can make reads, but for the times he does get caught he could struggle to get back into the play. On the rush, his skating may not be good enough to create the chances he had in the NCAA right away at the professional level.
Evans is set for his professional debut this year. He is older that most players making their professional debut as he turned 22 in June but that is what happens when you spend all four years in the NCAA.
He had a great start to his senior season, and was among the league’s top scorers early in the season before he slowed down a bit down the stretch.
That strong start to the season earned him an invite to Canada’s Spengler Cup team in December. It was seen as the final tryout for the Olympic team, so it is notable that he earned the invite at all. He played in four games and did not record a point in what was his first taste facing professional opponents. He played sparingly in those games, but the experience will help him as he goes into the professional game.
As a centre, he will face a lot of competition at camp. Evans will be competing for a spot down the middle, and the most likely result from training camp will likely be starting the year in the American Hockey League.
The Canadiens aren’t in a position where they need to rush Evans to the NHL level and if he doesn’t have a great camp, it’s not the end of the world. However, top NCAA free agents who signed after four years of play over the last few years have been able to step right in at the NHL level.
Evans may be a tad below the top NCAA tier, but the organization won’t have any pressure to push him earlier than he needs to be pushed. The best path for him may be to get some time under Joël Bouchard before making his NHL debut.