In the Spotlight: Filip Novak

By Brandon LeBourveau

The Rangers’ second round selection, 38th overall, was acquired by the Detroit Red Wings in 2000. With ex-General Manager Neil Smith already dealing the Rangers’ first round selection, which would have been eighth overall, to the Tampa Bay Lightning the previous summer in the package to move up and select forward Pavel Brendl fourth overall, the Rangers kept moving down in the draft.

Rangers GM Glen Sather dealt the 38th overall selection to the Red Wings in return for Detroit’s 2nd and 3rd round selections, 64th and 95th overall. In what was labeled as a “weak” draft talent-wise by many scouts and publications, the Rangers were willing to take a chance on players later in the draft who probably would not have much of a chance in the NHL. The Red Wings selected Tomas Kopecky, a highly-skilled C/LW from Slovakia, 38th overall. The Rangers’ first selection of the draft, which was already 63 picks old. An unfamiliar name then appeared: Filip Novak, D, Regina Pats (WHL), a small, albeit highly skilled, defenseman.

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Selected 12th overall in the 1999 CHL Import Draft by the Regina Pats of the WHL, Novak left his team in the Czech Republic (HC Cesk√© Budejovice) that summer to come over to North America and get accustomed to playing on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. In his first season of junior hockey, Novak appeared in 47 games, registering 7 goals, 32 assists, 39 points, 70 penalty minutes and a +1, finishing second among scoring for defenseman on the Pats. At mid-season, Novak was ranked as the 21st best North American skater by Central Scouting. However, at year’s end Novak dropped in the final rankings to 33rd among North American skaters. Leading up to the draft, many believed the smallish defenseman (6’0 174 lbs at the time) would be plucked somewhere in the late 2nd round, or the early to mid third round. When the Rangers selected Novak with the second to last pick in the second round (64th overall), most predicted correctly the area that the young Czech was going to be selected, however, they may have been surprised to here that it was by the New York Rangers.

By the time the 2000 Draft rolled around, Neil Smith was already gone as Rangers GM and Glen Sather took over the position. However, during the draft Glen Sather did not have any say in the team’s selections, as the Rangers used the scouting reports and information that was conducted by Neil Smith and his scouts. Thus, we can not accurately credit the selection of Novak as a Glen Sather pick, rather we have to say he was the last solid selection of the Neil Smith era. If Glen Sather was able to be involved with the selections, it probably would’ve been a good bet that Novak would not have ended up wearing the red, white and blue jersey of the Rangers at the end of the day. Most fans back in New York were intrigued by the selection, yet most did not have any clue of who this young player was. When training camp finally rolled around, there weren’t many Rangers’ fans in New York who had not heard the name Filip Novak.

The Rangers figured when they drafted him that he would need a few years to develop, so they brought him to training camp so he could experience what being in the NHL was about, and after a few days they would eventually return him to the Regina Pats of the WHL. With all the attention on two 1st round draft picks from the previous year, Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark, Novak somehow slipped through the cracks of the media, but not for long. The 18-year-old came to training camp with nothing to lose and from the first time he stepped on the ice during camp, he was easily one of the best players out there for the Rangers. He played with tons of poise and confidence, and his smooth skating and excellent puck handling ability really impressed the Rangers’ management. Novak’s play earned him the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award, awarded each year to the best rookie in training camp voted on by the local media. With the Rangers’ team consisting of mostly veterans, the management was faced with a tough decision at the end of training camp: Keep Novak around, or send him back to juniors as originally planned so he could continue to develop and get accustomed to North America. When it came time to make the decision, Novak was returned to Regina, but the youngster did not appear disappointed at all. Although he probably would have helped a pathetic Rangers’ defensive squad which contributed to the team missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, in retrospect the decision looks to have been the right one.

Novak made great strides during his second season of junior hockey, as he was frequently paired with Barret Jackman on the blue line, a physical defenseman who was selected by the St. Louis Blues in the 1st round (17th overall) of the 1999 Entry Draft. The pairing was arguably one of the best in the entire WHL for the majority of the season. Novak stepped his game up to another level, and had a breakout season offensively while also taking care of business in his own zone. In 64 games, Novak scored 17 goals and added 50 assists for a total of 67 points, along with 75 penalty minutes and an excellent plus/minus rating of +44. Novak averaged 1.04 points per game, an increase of .22 points per game from the season before. He finished 4th overall in scoring among players on his team, and second among defenseman, trailing only Paul Elliot by one point, although Elliot was acquired late in the season from Kamloops and only registered 25 points in 27 games with the Pats. Novak would easily have made the Czech Republic team that won gold at the 2001 World Junior Championships, however, Novak’s former team in the Czech Republic were still angry at him for leaving them to head to North America, and because of some confusing rules, HC Cesk√© Budejovice did not grant Filip Novak permission to compete at the World Junior Tournament. With Barret Jackman playing for Team Canada, Regina relied on Novak to anchor their defense even more than he was prior to the start of the tournament, and Novak came through.

With the help of Novak and some late season acquisitions, such as Blake Evans and Paul Elliot, Regina finished as the fifth best team in the WHL heading into the playoffs, although they were already guaranteed a spot in the Memorial Cup, as they were going to be hosting the tournament. Even though they had a free ride to the Memorial Cup, Regina had to participate in the playoffs just like every other team. If Regina wound up winning the WHL Championship, the runner-up would also make the Memorial Cup Tournament. However, the Pats received the ultimate unexpected when they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs in 6 games to former Rangers’ prospect Pavel Brendl and the Calgary Hitmen. Brendl missed game 1 of the series because of a knee injury, but came back to scorch Regina with 5 goals in the remaining 5 games, including two goals in the 3rd period, the winner coming with under twenty seconds remaining after Brendl stole the puck from Novak at the Hitmen blue-line, of Game 6 to seal a 4-3 victory for the Hitmen. Thus, the Pats had to wait a whole seven weeks before the start of the Memorial Cup. That extra time off was spent practicing, watching video tape of the other teams, and preparing for what they were up against. However, Regina couldn’t pull off a Memorial Cup win for their home crowd. The Red Deer Rebels of the WHL defeated the Val D’or Foreurs of the QMJHL in overtime in the final game to clinch the 2001 Memorial Cup Champi
onship. Regina finished 3rd in the tournament with a 2-3-0 record in 5 games. Novak was fourth in scoring among defenseman playing in the tournament, finishing with 4 points, all assists, in 5 games along with two penalty minutes. Even though the Pats couldn’t pull off the victory, it was a great experience for their whole team, including the Rangers’ Czech defenseman.

As the offseason finally began, most fans started looking ahead for a fresh start and a new season. After Novak’s surprisingly excellent performance during training camp last year, many believed that if Novak could just play the same way again this year, he’d have an easy time staying on Broadway. After Rangers’ General Manager Glen Sather went out and signed veteran defensemen Igor Ulanov and Dave Karpa over the summer, and brought in veteran Darren Van Impe off waivers from Boston, many fans questioned these moves greatly. It was clear Sather wanted to patch up the defense by bringing in some veterans, but nonetheless he still gave the youngsters the opportunity to make an impression during camp. When Filip Novak first arrived at Rangers’ camp, many couldn’t even recognize him. When he was in town for camp last year, the Rangers’ had a 6’0 174 lbs. defenseman. When they returned him to juniors, one of the things they told him to work on was bulking up and adding some upper body strength. It was clear that Novak listened to the management. The 19-year-old weighed in at an impressive 201 lbs, a 27-pound increase from the year before. At that point Novak was at 6’0 201, and the Rangers were no longer dealing with a small, highly-skilled defenseman who would easily be out muscled along the boards and in front of the net by bigger, stronger NHL opponents. Now what they had was exactly what they wanted the year before, and it was only a matter of time before Ron Low penciled in Novak on the Rangers’ opening night roster…or was it?

When the Rangers finally opened training camp after the devastating tragedy of September 11, something didn’t seem right while watching Novak play. The young defenseman, who impressed management the season before with his poise, maturity and confidence, was clearly not playing at the same level he showed in the past. Novak lasted in camp for the next few weeks and saw ice-time during two exhibition games, but was reassigned to the Regina Pats on September 22nd, his second straight year of being sent back to junior. When Ron Low was asked about the decision to send the youngster back to junior, he said the same things that everyone else already noticed. When Novak arrived at camp last season, he was having fun and a smile could always be seen on his face. But this year’s training camp was a different story. It was clear that he was trying too hard to make the team, and he wasn’t relaxing and having fun the way he should have been. As a result of trying too hard, Novak was thinking too much on the ice and that eventually led to some bad mental mistakes. Ron Low recalled rarely seeing a smile on Novak’s face during camp. When Low gave the news to the youngster that he was heading back to junior, the two had a long talk and Filip understood everything and had no hard feelings toward the Rangers at all. That alone impressed the Rangers’ management, and Novak headed back to Regina with another few weeks of NHL experience under his belt and more motivation for next season.

Upon returning to the Pats, Novak helped the team to a 2-2 tie against the defending Memorial Cup Champions, the Red Deer Rebels. His presence in the locker room and on the ice was felt greatly by the whole Regina organization. With Barret Jackman and Paul Elliot graduated to the pro ranks, the team was glad they had Novak back to anchor their defense. Arguably one of the best defenseman in the entire WHL, Novak is currently 7th in scoring in the league among defenseman with 32 points in 35 games. His points per game average has been down from the season prior, however Novak has become more of a complete defenseman this year, thanks in large part to that extra 27 pounds of muscle he added on over the last year. He has registered 32 points (8 goals + 24 assists), along with 89 penalty minutes and a +19 rating. He is currently 5th in scoring on the team, despite playing about 6 less games than most of the others. Novak is the second oldest defenseman on the team, with only Jeff Feniak older by one year. The rest of the defensemen on the Pats’ blue line are all young and inexperienced, thus Novak has been someone for them to look up to and learn from, and he has done a pretty decent job playing the role of the mentor.

Novak recently returned from the Czech Republic where he was playing with the Czechs during the 2002 World Junior Championship. In 7 games, Novak finished with a measly 2 points (both assists), 4 penalty minutes and an even plus/minus rating, as the two-time defending gold medalists finished an extremely disappointing seventh in front of their home crowd. Keep in mind that the Czechs were without many top players from the previous year, most notably Pavel Brendl, Rostislav Klesla, Radim Vrbata, Vaclav Nedorost, Tomas Duba and Martin Erat, but they should have finished higher than what they did. They had trouble finding the back of the net early on in the tournament, and that is probably what killed their chances at advancing further than what they did. This team consisted of mostly younger players, and Novak was one of the oldest on the squad. Upon returning to the Pats after the tournament, Filip registered 2 assists and 2 penalty minutes in a 6-3 win over the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Regina is currently first in the WHL’s East Division with a 24-12-3-5 record, and made their first appearance this week on the Bank of Montreal MasterCard CHL Top 10 rankings, coming in at number 10. The Pats will have to rely on players such as Filip Novak and Garth Murray, selected in the 3rd round by the Rangers’ this past summer, if they have plans of making it back to the Memorial Cup Championship, and this time they’ll have to do it the hard way. Both Novak and Murray were recently selected to the WHL’s Eastern Conference all-star team, which will square off against the OHL’s Western Conference all-stars on January 23rd in Red Deer, Alberta. If Novak can continue to play solid defensively and rack up some more points, Regina should have no problem finishing as one of the better teams in the WHL. After all, if you’ve seen Novak play, you know what the kid is capable of doing.

Blessed with a tremendous amount of skill, Novak is a speedster and an excellent skater. He has a smooth stride and his speed is one of his best assets. It enables him to get to the puck before the opposition, and also allows him to rush the puck up the ice effectively and efficiently. He has a pair of soft hands, and is dangerous at creating havoc in the offensive zone. With his poise and confidence, combined with great vision and hockey sense, Novak is able to make extremely creative plays offensively that others in the league simply are not capable of making. He has been a workhorse all season for Regina, and has played in all game situations, be it the power play, penalty kill, late in the 3rd period with the game on the line, etc. Basically, you get the idea. There are very few flaws to the youngsters’ game. He is an excellent power play quarterback, and is able to effectively move the puck around the offensive zone to create chances for his teammates. He has a hard shot from the point that he keeps low to the ice for the possibility of a deflection. He has improved his physical play tremendously this season, and has become steady in his own end. He already has 89 penalty minutes through 35 games, which is 14 more than he had all of last season. He makes sure to punish the opposition whenever he gets the chance, and does a good job finishing his checks. He basically has done it all this season on the blue line for Regina, and right now the sky is the limit for this 19-year-old. At this point it’s a safe bet to say that Novak will be a sure-fire NHL defenseman, and
right now I’d say his potential is a solid number three defenseman on a good team, and possibly with some more muscle and maturity, along with improvement in his overall game, he does have the potential to be a number two defenseman. He has been compared by some to the Washington Capitals’ Sergei Gonchar, but after having watched both on numerous occasions, they are comparable offensively, but Novak is much better in his own end and in front of the net. Gonchar is widely viewed as a defensive liability, while Novak has yet to be criticized in this area.

It’s clear at this point that the Rangers’ made a great selection late in the 2nd round, and they should be reaping the benefits for many years to come. However, there could be one potential stumbling block in this whole situation. Since Novak was drafted out of juniors, the Rangers have until midnight on May 31st, 2002 to agree on a contract with the young Czech defenseman, or else he’ll have to re-enter the draft. Glen Sather was a tough negotiator this past summer with Marek Zidlicky and Nils Ekman.