It’s not often that the final selection made in an NHL Draft becomes the best one a team makes, but in the case of the 2014 Canadiens draft class, that looks to be the case. The team looked like they found a steal in Nikita Scherbak in round one, then whiffed on their picks in the rounds following, infamously trading up for Brett Lernout and passing on Brayden Point in the third round. The team used their last pick — 207th overall — to draft an unknown kid from the St. Michael’s Buzzers in the OJHL by the name of Jake Evans.
Fast forward six years, and he has a successful four-year NCAA career at Notre Dame under his belt, and has grown into a true professional. With the support of Joël Bouchard, he’s put himself in the conversation for an NHL role as well.
Evans earned his call-up to Montreal after a strong showing for the Rocket, and he responded in short order with his first goal. After the NHL resumed for the post-season after its pause due to COVID-19, he forced his way into the lineup over centre options like Ryan Poehling and Jordan Weal.
Evans has always been a standout playmaker across his career, but 2019-20 wasn’t an easy year for him. He went through the opening month of the AHL season without a goal; 18 games to be exact. Then, an empty-net goal in the middle of November got him out of his slump and back on track for the year. He compiled plenty of multi-point efforts for the Rocket as Laval hunted for a playoff spot, racking up timely goals to complement his passing skills.
Find someone in life who supports you like Joel Bouchard does Jake Evans pic.twitter.com/egMmg4hjkU— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 11, 2019
We’ve used this gif a lot at Eyes On The Prize, but it’s important to show what good player support can do. Bouchard never gave up or punished Evans during his slump, and his player rewarded that faith with more goals than he had even in his NCAA seasons, and a better points-per-game rate than his rookie season in spite of his horrible slump.
His work resulted in 13 NHL games before the season was cancelled, then a six game playoff stint on the new-look fourth line. In that time, he established himself as the heir apparent to bottom-line centre role over top Poehling for the new season, a huge boost for the 24-year-old.
I thought I might have had the highest vote for Evans in this year’s Top 25 Under 25, but nearly half the panel had him above me. Evans remains one of the quickest risers in this annual countdown since its inception.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Starting at 35th for his first two years, he rose to 20th, then 16th and 12th before his first professional season. He’ll end his tenure in the Top 25 Under 25 with a top-10 finish, a truly fitting end for one of the Habs’ biggest recent success stories in terms of player development. It’s not often that the 207th overall pick becomes a player of this quality.
History of #10
|2017||Jacob de la Rose|
Evans remains a very good distributor of the puck heading into his third professional year. With 24 assists in 51 games, he had the ideal skill set to complement Charles Hudon’s goal-scoring prowess. He doesn’t do anything truly amazing with the puck, he just gets it where it needs to be for his teammates to put it on the net.
14 seconds into the third period and Antoine Waked ties it up on a feed from Jake Evans. pic.twitter.com/dCv96zB2Nd— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 28, 2019
His ability to get pucks into the right spots comes from his high hockey IQ and vision. He can pick out his teammates entering soft spots on the ice, then pick his head up, swivel, and flick a pass to them while in motion, allowing them to put more behind their shots.
Charles Hudon again!— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 29, 2019
He takes a Jake Evans feed and makes it 4-1. pic.twitter.com/tyuIsWsSGT
Evans wasn’t just used to generate offence. Bouchard trusted him to kill penalties and take the ice in crucial situations. This carried up to the NHL level, including his stint with the Habs in the playoffs as well. He was lined up on the fourth line to eat up some defensive-zone time while defending leads.
This flexibility helps him fit into whatever role the Canadiens need him for. He’s not lost on an offensive line, but is responsible enough to fill into a defensive role when needed.
He’s very capable across the board, but he isn’t going to be a standout in any particular area. Being a regular NHL bottom-six forward is likely where he peaks barring a surge toward the end of his prime.
Developing into an NHL player is not a bad thing, but Evans will likely fall behind other prospects in the Canadiens’ pool who are younger and haven’t hit their full potential yet.
He has taken a fair amount of abuse in his two professional seasons, starting with a serious concussion going into his rookie season. Last year alone, Evan took a number of heavy hits from behind at the AHL and NHL level, including a nasty-looking one from Brandon Tanev in the post-season.
Brandon Tanev drills Jake Evans from behind, leaving Evans out cold and bloody pic.twitter.com/kAPJeV75jT— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) August 6, 2020
That’s no fault of his own, but it’s something he and the Canadiens need to monitor to avoid a potentially serious problem from cropping up.
After two strong AHL seasons and his first taste of NHL hockey, it’s clear that Evans should be spending this season as a full-time member of the Montreal Canadiens. He’s worked his way up through the minors successfully and is one of the best stories of the Habs’ revamped development pipeline. The team has struggled to produce quality NHL players out of their early-round picks, so to turn such a late draft selection into a servicable NHL player is great work from Bouchard and the other members of the development staff.
As it stands right now, Evans should be the starting fourth-line centre this season. While Poehling is the player many Habs fans want to see get more NHL time, Evans proved himself to be the more consistent and NHL-ready of the two over the past year. At 24 years of age, we’ve seen a constant year-by-year improvement, and this will be the next step.
Evans has improved every single year he’s been part of the Top 25 Under 25, and he’s one of the first prospects to fully reap the rewards of an overhauled development system. Now he may get the chance to show his worth in the NHL every night. Not a bad way to end his time as a prospect in this series.