Stu Cowan: Jake Evans playing some of his best hockey with Canadiens

Seventh-round draft pick by Habs in 2014 has played more NHL games than seven players selected in the first round that year.

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The Canadiens’ Jake Evans isn’t sure what he would have done for a career if he didn’t make it in the NHL.

“People have asked me that and I have no idea,” Evans said during a one-on-one chat after the Canadiens practised Monday at the Bell Centre. “I’m sure if I was in school and I knew hockey wasn’t going to work out I would have probably taken an internship somewhere.”

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Evans played four seasons at the University of Notre Dame after being selected by the Canadiens in the seventh round (207th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft. He was captain of the Fighting Irish during his senior season and graduated with a degree in management consulting.

The season before the Canadiens drafted him, Evans had an impressive year with the OJHL’s St. Michael’s Buzzers, posting 16-47-63 totals in 49 games. But as the rounds went by at the 2014 NHL Draft, Evans started to think he wouldn’t get picked.

“Not at the start of the draft, but by the end, yeah, I thought it was over,” he said. “Near the end, I thought I was toast.”

Tuesday night’s game against the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM) will be Evans’s 260th in the NHL. That’s more games than seven players selected in the first round of the 2014 draft, including Nikita Scherbak, who only played 37 games after the Canadiens picked him 26th overall.

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What has been the key to Evans’s longevity?

“Honestly, just hard work,” he said. “Playing simple and smart. The ability to bounce back. Guys can get in slumps and they can last a long time. I like to think I’ve been able to bounce back from certain slumps and still play the right way. Just proving your value to the team.”

Evans’s biggest value to the team is as a penalty-killer. He’s a big reason why the Canadiens had killed off 15 of 16 power-play chances by the opposition in the five games before facing the Panthers and 45 of 50 (90 per cent) in the previous 15 games. Before facing the Panthers, the Canadiens ranked 23rd in the NHL in penalty-killing with a 76.7 per cent success rate, which highlights how much they have improved in that department since early in the season in large part thanks to Evans and Joel Armia.

“What I like most about Jake is I think he’s a big part of why our PK has done really well here in the last little while,” head coach Martin St. Louis said. “He’s been great on draws. He’s been one of our best killers — him and Army.”

Evans is winning 52.5 per cent of his faceoffs this season and has improved his offensive play since the Canadiens traded fellow centre Sean Monahan to the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 2. Before facing the Panthers, Evans had 4-7-11 totals in 24 games since the Monahan trade, giving him 6-18-24 totals for the season.

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“He got a lot more ice time (after the trade), he got a bigger role,” St. Louis said. “He got more offensive touches and his touches have been pretty good. He’s playing well on both sides of the puck. But the thing I like the most about Jake is what he’s done to help our PK improve so much in a short amount of time.”

When asked if he’s now playing the best hockey of his career, Evans said: “Hard to answer. I’m happy with the way things are going right now. Obviously, things like PK and faceoffs are big for me and that’s going well. But I do feel there’s more to give on a consistent basis still and finding that next level and being able to do that every day.”

What part of his game does he take the most pride in?

“Honestly, faceoffs and penalty-kill,” he said. “It sounds weird, but I just like penalty-killing. It’s kind of fun for me. I get a lot of enjoyment taking a slapshot down the ice and racing to the bench or winning a big faceoff. Cole (Caufield) likes scoring … I like dumping the puck out.”

Since the Monahan trade, Evans had actually scored one more goal than Caufield before facing the Panthers.

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“You just got to prove your value and, I guess, not have too much of an ego when you’re in a spot like me and keep going,” Evans said.

That’s how a seventh-round draft pick makes it in the NHL.

“It’s kind of weird,” Evans said. “I think when you’re growing up and then when you get drafted you’re just dreaming of playing a game in the NHL. Once I got the one, I was like: Let’s push for more and let’s get 100. Then you get 200. It’s nice getting those milestones, but now it’s let’s get another one and another one. You want to get to that spot where you can be a playoff team, too. That’s what you’re striving to get.

“When I was drafted, you don’t really think about playing this many games.”

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