It’s the epitome of “what if.”
Every year, over 200 players are chosen by teams in a league that holds just over 700 roster spots. By its very nature, the Entry Draft sets a collision course between the new guard and the old guard, leading to fierce training camp battles, frustration, and in some cases, stories of perseverance and excellence from late-round draft picks.
It’s an inexact science, but since taking over as head scout of the Montreal Canadiens in 2003, current assistant general manager Trevor Timmins and his team have found their fair share of hidden games in later rounds, players that defied all odds to earn their way into highly-contested NHL jobs.
Look no further than Canadiens forward Jake Evans as a perfect example of the advantages – as well as the hurdles- involved in being a late-round pick.
Evans spent the majority of the draft weekend excitingly refreshing his computer to see which NHL team would end up calling his name. With several teams interested in his services, originally, there were whispers that Evans could be a second, third, or fourth-round pick. As excitement turned to anxiety, Evans watched over 200 players appear on NHL.com’s draft list before his name finally showed up.
“Midway through the seventh round I just left my house,” he said. “I was done with the Draft. I thought it was over for me.”
It wasn’t over. Far from it.
It was actually his mother who gave him the great news while Evans contemplated his future on the basketball court.
“It was really exciting,” he said. “She told me the Canadiens picked me. As a Canadian kid, I loved watching Montreal and Toronto play. Getting drafted by the Canadiens gave me chills. It was an opportunity to join a high-end franchise.”
His mood quickly shifted from disappointment to excitement, but not without a hint of motivation.
“It’s frustrating watching the Draft, seeing yourself fall,” he said.
And though the motivation stemmed from proving the teams that ignored him wrong, it was also a matter of proving the Canadiens right.
Following a very successful four-year career with Notre Dame of the NCAA, Evans made his professional debut in 2018-19 for the Laval Rocket, where he finished second in scoring, all the while maintaining a well-deserved reputation as a stalwart defensive presence due to his elevated hockey IQ. Last season, Evans led the Rocket in scoring. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Canadiens in a very successful audition for the vaunted fourth-line role on Claude Julien’s roster.
It wasn’t the fastest path to the NHL, and there’s no denying Evans paid his dues before receiving an opportunity, but it does illustrate the value of patience when it comes to late-round draft picks. Not to mention, the slow, yet steady route also gives players a chance to work on the skills necessary to survive as a professional, both on and off the ice.
“Every year in college I gradually got better,” he said. “Being that late of a pick, not having so much hype, had its advantages. Obviously, being a first-round pick is great, but for me, taking my time was perfect. There weren’t too many expectations. Every year you grow up a little more. You take care of yourself more as a person, gain more experience, in hockey and in life. That’s what college did for me.”
Evans is far from the only player selected by Timmins & Co. in the later rounds to go on to shatter pre-draft expectations.
Brendan Gallagher, the 147th overall pick in 2010, has become one of the best 5-on-5 goal scorers in the NHL. Over the course of the last three seasons, only Alex Ovechkin (1st overall, 2004), Auston Matthews (1st overall, 2016), Connor McDavid (1st overall, 2015) and Nikita Kucherov (58th overall, 2011) have scored more goals at 5-on-5 than the Canadiens forward. We often hear about Gallagher’s work ethic, the driving force behind his elite goal-scoring. That part is undeniable. But there’s no way you can match the best players in the NHL without a very high, and in Gallagher’s case, underrated, skillset.
Cayden Primeau, selected 199th overall in 2017, finished his inaugural season with the Laval Rocket in style, earning a spot on the AHL’s All-Rookie Team. This won’t come as a surprise for those who followed his brief, yet triumphant time with Northeastern University, where he won the Mike Richter Award as the best goaltender in the NCAA. It remains to be seen if Primeau can match the level of play we’ve seen in Montreal from another late-round goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, but as it stands, all signs point to Primeau having starter potential in the NHL. Halak, selected in the now-defunct 9th round of the 2003 Draft, finished his tenure in Montreal with the second-best save percentage in team history. He joins Mark Streit, another 9th-round pick, as one of the most valuable late-round draft picks in team history.
Sergei Kostitsyn (7th-round, 2005) and Mikhail Grabovski (5th-round, 2004) are among the other hidden gems that graced the organization, but to put a fine point on the value of stockpiling Draft picks, Canadiens fans can simply look to the current blue line, where 2016 fourth-round pick Victor Mete is quickly earning the admiration of pundits and coaches alike due to his elite lateral movement and graceful skating.
Yes, the NHL Draft is the epitome of “what if”, and the majority of the NHL’s marquee impact players come from the first round, but with a lot of hard work from the scouting staff — and a little luck — there are pearls to be found in the ocean of players available.
It’s just a matter of digging in places where others have failed to explore.