Luke Evangelista on his year off of hockey and the challenge of the AHL.
When Luke Evangelista heard his name selected in the second round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft last October by the Nashville Predators, he became part of a truly unique class of prospects.
To date, no other draftees besides this class can say their draft was held over Zoom. Scenes of prospects hugging their parents before descending onto the draft floor at an NHL arena were replaced with virtual interviews and more quality time at home.
Despite all that, Evangelista still took note of how incredible his draft experience was.
“It was a little different,” said Evangelista when we spoke over the phone. “But the Zoom calls that I did leading up to the draft with different organizations…getting to meet a lot of people in the hockey world, a lot of GMs, and a lot of people who have watched you play for a long time…I think that was a really cool experience for me.”
“It shows you that there are more eyes on you than you think of…It was cool talking to them and hearing some stories and receiving some feedback. That was one thing I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Evangelista is right: There are lots of eyes on you when you’re a player of his skill, especially in the London Knights organization.
The Knights—one of the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) preeminent organizations—are an NHL factory, producing players like Rick Nash, Nazem Kadri, and Patrick Kane. They took Evangelista 14th overall in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection, seeing a future NHL player in the making.
Evangelista barely played in his rookie season, scoring just two assists in 27 games. In his draft year, he burst onto the scene and scored 61 points in 62 games. The Oakville, Ontario native skated alongside Washington’s first-round pick in 2019, Connor McMichael, but rarely saw any power-play time and scored all but four of his points at even strength.
And then, COVID-19 hit.
Evangelista was picked by Nashville in October, signed his entry-level contract in November, and still hadn’t played an OHL game this season as the calendar turned to 2021. With the league still not up and running, Evangelista hadn’t played a competitive hockey game since March 8, 2020. However, that changed this past Sunday.
“I’ve been practicing for a couple of weeks,” said Evangelista last week. “Coming down to Chicago, and being down here now, has been really good for me mentally…just to kind of be back in that hockey environment.”
As I first reported last Wednesday, Evangelista has been practicing with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, and after clearing COVID-19 protocols, played his first professional game against the Rockford IceHogs this past weekend.
He said that since going up against AHL competition in practice and now in a game, there’s meaning to all his quarantine training now.
“One of the main things I tried to take advantage of during the long break was my weight,” added Evangelista. “I always seem to lose a fair bit of weight throughout the season, so this offseason, I was in the gym five times a week, I was on a big meal plan, eating five meals a day almost.”
“I gained a bunch of weight this offseason, and practicing against the guys in the AHL now, I can really feel it paying off: I’m not getting knocked off the puck as I would’ve previously…I feel better in battles and stuff. So that was a big thing for me, and I think I definitely executed on that,” said Evangelista, who’s listed at 5’11”.
Throughout this pandemic-filled season, Nashville has made a strong effort to find new homes for prospects displaced by COVID-19. But any sort of European loan or assignment never came to fruition for Evangelista.
“That was never really an option,” he added. “I talked to Nashville a little bit, when Milwaukee was shut down, about Florida in the East Coast, so that was an option. Obviously, they’ve teamed up with Carolina, and once that came about, I think that was the main goal…to come down to Chicago here.”
Despite having no game tape to review from this season, Evangelista said the organization has been extremely supportive.
“With Nashville, it started as soon as I got drafted,” Evangelista noted. “We got set up after the draft, and we’re using this app where they can send us footage from NHL games. They send us a lot of clips from their system so we can figure it out early.”
“It’s been really helpful with [Nashville] sending us what they like to see in players and to keep that in the back of our minds.”
Outside of his workout regimen, Evangelista has been supremely focused on the ice, executing on the feedback he’s receiving from the Predators’ development staff and improving his shot. Off the ice, Evangelista has tried a lot to help pass the time.
“I haven’t really stuck with anything too long,” he admitted. “I downloaded an app on my phone to try and work on the piano. I’ve been playing a lot of basketball. [I’m] just trying some things to keep me going, but I didn’t really see anything through too far.”
Nowadays, Evangelista has much less free time, and a year after his last game, he’s excited for the challenge of professional hockey.
“I think coming [to Chicago] and practicing against goalies with a lot of AHL experience and even some NHL experience…if I can start scoring on them, it’ll help me make an easier transition back to junior, or wherever I play, and start scoring more goals.”