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Learning the ropes

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Forward Jake Evans is making steady progress in his second season with the Fighting Irish.

After putting up seven goals and 17 points in 41 games in his freshman campaign at the University of Notre Dame in 2014-15, Evans has already registered 14 points in just 16 games so far this year, and posted a plus-8 differential along the way.

Photo Credit: Fighting Irish Media

That’s pretty impressive for a player who is getting his first shot at playing his natural position at center in the NCAA ranks. The Toronto native spent last season playing right-wing while learning the basics of the college game and growing accustomed to a brand new environment on and off the ice in South Bend, IN.

“I think it’s just a maturity thing. He came in last year as an 18-year-old freshman, and in some cases he was going up against 25-year-old seniors playing on some of the other teams. It’s a big adjustment for kids coming in as true freshmen, and we tend to recruit a lot more true freshmen than other schools. I think the biggest thing [behind him progress] is that year under his belt, having gone through some of the ups and downs that come with it. It’s also a confidence thing,” offered head coach Jeff Jackson, who has helmed the Fighting Irish since 2005-06. “Moving him back to center might have helped him a bit, too. He was playing on the right side most of last year. I tend to do that with young freshmen. All good players generally come in thinking they’re centers. Sometimes, it’s good to take some pressure off from a defensive perspective and also from a face-off perspective. He’s done a good job for us so far, though.”

Evans’ early-season numbers suggest he’s right where he belongs position-wise. There’s still a lot for the standout pivot to learn about his role, but he’s definitely feeling good about himself these days, especially with Jackson’s unwavering support and guidance at his disposal.

“Playing center, I feel like there are more openings to pass. I feel like my vision is one of my bigger assets, so being in the middle really helps me. On the wing, you have to stop and start a lot, but as a centerman you’re down low and you’re kind of flowing out with your wingers and gaining speed up the ice. I feel more comfortable taking draws and starting with possession,” shared Evans, who was the Canadiens’ seventh-round pick – 207th overall – back in 2014. “Coach Jackson definitely gets more confident in you after your freshman year. He trusts you more on the ice. I’m just building off the confidence he’s shown in me this year.”

While Jackson has been pleased with Evans’ play through the first six weeks of the season, he insists the talented youngster still has plenty of room to grow in a number of key areas. That shouldn’t really come as a surprise, though, given that Evans is just 19 years old.

“He needs to get more explosive. If he’s going to play center at the next level, he’s going to have to improve his skating. That’s the biggest challenge for him from a skills perspective. His body is still young, too. He isn’t small at six-feet and 190 pounds, but training is going to help him an awful lot going forward. He’ll need to get stronger,” explained Jackson, who has worked with the likes of NHLers Erik Condra, Ian Cole, Riley Sheahan, Kyle Palmieri and Anders Lee over the years at Notre Dame. “Consistency is something we’re working on, too. Jake’s had some really good first nights in a weekend series, then his Saturday nights drop off a little bit. That’s where once he physically develops his body, that in itself will give him more confidence and help him be more consistent from night to night.”

Photo Credit: Fighting Irish Media

That being said, Jackson believes Evans’ raw talent is certainly there. It’s just a matter of harnessing it and continuing to work on his thought process during games.

“He’s got a really good hockey sense. He’s also got a little grit to him. Still, I’d just like to see him have a little more finish because I think he can score more than he does. Sometimes, he has quality scoring chances and he gets a little too selective with his shot choices,” admitted Jackson, who has been featuring Evans as the squad’s third-line centerman during the 2015-16 campaign, while affording him time in both power play and penalty killing situations, too. “Defensively, he’s got a good stick. He’s very smart, too. He’s not afraid to block a shot. He’s not afraid to get his nose dirty. But, if he improves his skating, his mobility will follow and he’ll be really good in his own end.”

Fortunately, Evans is up to the task in hopes that he can contribute to Notre Dame’s cause in a significant way every single weekend.

“I just want to help the team win by any means possible. I’m trying to be a good centerman and keep up my point production, for sure. As a group, we want to finish Top 4 in Hockey East, then win that and eventually make it to the NCAA Tournament this year,” mentioned Evans, who attended the Canadiens’ Development Camp at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard last July. “Right now, I’m learning about all the little things that it takes to win at this level, especially in close games that we have to put away. Backchecking and blocking shots are some of the biggest things that Coach Jackson is preaching this year, along with a team-first mentality. I think it’s really been helping me so far.”

Jackson is definitely in agreement there.

“Our hope for Jake is that he slowly evolves into being a No. 1 or No. 2 center, playing minutes against the other’s team’s top lines – and he’s still productive as well. Whether that happens this year or next, that’s still to be determined. But, he’s done everything I could have asked of him. He’s going to move into that role eventually,” concluded Jackson, who firmly believes Evans has the potential to be a force at both ends of the rink. “If he continues to develop his explosiveness, skating and consistency, he’s got a chance to be a top-line center at the college level. I think that’s what he continues to work and make strides towards.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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