Surprise Kraken second-round draft pick Ryker Evans hadn’t needed motivation to hit the ice daily by 7 a.m. last winter after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of what for him would be a defining junior-hockey season.
Being passed over all seven rounds of last year’s NHL entry draft provided enough internal burn to keep Evans warm, as he and his father, Mike, a well-known power-skating coach, made the pre-sunrise trek from their Calgary, Alberta, home to a nearby outdoor rink.
Indoor rinks in Alberta were closed due to COVID-19 precautions, and the outdoor ice was smoothest that time of day, yet to be chipped by other users and better for high-speed, lateral skating drills.
And the last thing Evans needed was to deal with more chips — on ice or otherwise. He has long toted proverbial ones from youth to adulthood, as hockey’s talent evaluators repeatedly overlooked him due to size, with last year’s NHL draft snub the latest and biggest offense.
“It definitely puts a chip on your shoulder,” said Evans, 19, a left-handed shooting defenseman for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. “It definitely makes you work harder. It definitely makes you want to prove everybody wrong.”
And that’s what Evans and his dad channeled for two hours every morning, working to improve his speed and mobility. From there, Evans hit the home gymnasium for two more hours, padding his slender physique with 15 pounds of extra muscle ahead of a COVID-19-shortened 24-game WHL season that made the Kraken join him at foiling naysayers.
In a stunning call at last month’s NHL draft, the Kraken made Evans its second-round selection (35th overall), a move even the Pats blue-liner hadn’t expected. Evans, who ranked only 192nd among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, slept in that Saturday morning — only to have his stunned parents see his name called on the TV broadcast and hurriedly awaken him in time for a call from Kraken general manager Ron Francis.
Later that day, Kraken amateur scouting director Robert Kron, who had met multiple times with the older prospect his scouts couldn’t stop raving about, summed up Evans this way: “He’s been battling through adversity all his life.”
It began as a toddler, with Evans experiencing stomach pains that worsened over time. By fourth grade, he often felt lethargic and wasn’t developing the same physically as others.
Finally, Evans was diagnosed with Celiac disease, an immune-system reaction to gluten that causes internal inflammation and prevents the body from absorbing key nutrients. For Evans, who had laced on skates at age 2 and tried to emulate boyhood idol Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche, the discovery catapulted his game.
His father had played college and low-level pro hockey, teaching him the basics. Through his power-skating business, Core Power, he had gotten Evans on the ice for drills alongside his older students — future NHL mainstays such as Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point, Avalanche forward Cale Makar, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey and Calgary Flames winger Dillon Dube.
“He could skate, he had a real high hockey IQ,” his father said. “He knew how to position himself. But once we found out he had Celiac, everything changed drastically. He started to grow, and he was happier. It wasn’t tough to get going every morning.”
The family managed his condition by altering his diet. And Evans deployed his newfound energy level and strength.
“My whole life changed,” Evans said. “I started feeling better. I started getting the right nutrients, which allowed me to grow. I had better sleep. Once we figured that out, it changed my life.”
And though the weight and height would still lag for years, Evans began dominating games with skill and hockey sense typically seen in players much older. Evans became so dominant by his early teens that Campbell Elynuik, a former Everett Silvertips junior player, couldn’t believe what he was watching from the stands.
Elynuik had just started a job scouting Bantam-level Under-15 prospects in Calgary for the Pats when he spotted a defenseman, 5 feet 2 and barely 100 pounds, skating circles around opponents.
“The skill level he had was next-level skill,” Elynuik said. “And his courage. He was like, 100 pounds and he would go into corners with guys that were 180 or 190 and come away with the puck. He was never afraid of anyone.”
Knowing some prospects take longer to grow, Elynuik did some homework. He met with Evans’ family and found his mother, Lisa, was 5-8 and her father had been 6-3.
“So I had that in my back pocket,” he said. “But when I was selling him to our head scout and everything, it was definitely like pulling teeth.”
The newbie scout nevertheless “put my neck on the line” arguing the Pats should select the undersized player in that year’s Bantam draft. His pleas resonated with Pats GM John Paddock, who, with the draft winding down, took Evans — by then listed at 5-3 and 110 pounds — 209th overall in the 10th round, ahead of only 22 other players.
Evans grew to a still-undersized 5-6 the following year. He’d added another couple of inches upon reaching Regina a season later.
He’s yet to play a full campaign for the Pats — eased into his first as a rookie after he broke his leg and the past two shortened by COVID-19. But the two-dozen games played in the WHL’s “bubble” format in Regina this year saw a bigger, faster defenseman contribute at both ends of the rink like never before.
Having finally surpassed 6-0 in height, with a bulkier 191-pound frame, Evans was named the Pats’ top player, scoring three goals and adding 25 assists — tying for the team lead with Connor Bedard, a potential No. 1 overall NHL draft pick in 2023.
And his more advanced analytics were off the charts.
Mitch Brown, director of North American scouting for the Elite Prospects website — who sells proprietary data to teams — compiled an all-in-one data set evaluating 300 defensemen and 450 forwards over 382 games last season in the major junior and United States Hockey League ranks. And in 12 primary categories that included exiting the puck from his zone, entering the opposing zone and creating scoring chances for teammates, Brown said Evans ranked No. 1 among all defenders “by a considerable margin” — including those taken higher in the draft.
He was significantly better in every category measured by Brown than Brandon Wheat Kings defenseman Braden Schneider, 19, drafted 19th overall by the New York Rangers a year ago. Brown said the “deceptive transition” from defense to offense by Evans makes him most dangerous.
“He skates towards pressure instead of away from it, and that creates space in other parts of the ice,” Brown said. “And then he looks off his passing target so that no one knows who he’s passing to. And when he hits the target he doesn’t break stride, he tries to get back up into the play in the offensive zone.”
His data has Evans in the 96th percentile among defensemen in expected goals per 60 minutes when he shoots the puck and the 99th percentile at drawing the primary assist on goals when he passes to teammates.
“That’s a really undervalued thing in NHL circles,” Brown said. “The ability to make the first pass and then get up in to the play and be deceptive about it. I think players like Ryker Evans are market inefficiencies right now in the draft and in a couple of years’ time we’re going to see players like him become increasingly valuable.”
Evans’ dad is just glad some NHL team took a chance on his son.
“There were a lot of times when he was a better player and they said ‘Oh, he was just too small,’ ” he said. “Even though it was blatantly obvious he was a better player, they said he was too small. Now, they don’t say that.”
Evans isn’t saying much either, just awaiting word on an invite to Kraken training camp next month. He’ll play for Regina again next season, then likely head to the Kraken’s American Hockey League affiliate in 2022-23.
And he will employ a mindset slightly different from one he’s operated under most of his hockey life.
“I always wanted to prove everybody wrong,” Evans said. “But now, since Seattle drafted me, I kind of have to prove them right.”