BUFFALO – With the attention being paid to center prospects in the 2015 NHL Draft, it might be easy to lose track of a player like Thomas Novak.
Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Dylan Strome have all taken turns in the spotlight already this season, but now Novak is starting to make his mark amongst draft hopefuls and drawing rave reviews from those who have watched him closely.
Novak's road to notoriety is a bit different than many his contemporaries.
He's playing in the United States Hockey League for Waterloo after a three-year stint with St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota.
He's already left a positive impression.
"Tommy is a high-skill guy," Waterloo coach P.K. O'Handley said. "His thought process, his hands, his ability to make plays and think and see some things that maybe other guys don't see is pretty remarkable really for a young guy. I think he's got whatever that thing might be. That thing."
"That thing" is superstar potential and ability.
In his first season with Waterloo, Novak has three goals and 10 assists in 15 games. During the past year, he's played internationally for the United States Under-18 Team at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament and scored five goals with six assists in five games. He also participated in the 2014 USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo in September.
"I think he's sometimes two and three steps ahead of the play," O'Handley said. "I think that as well as his vision [are his strongest assets]. I think a part of vision is being able to picture what's to come and I think he's got a real unique ability to see what maybe two steps ahead is going to look like. I think he relishes the challenge of that. It's a strength of his and, at times, it can be an Achilles heel.
"I think he has the ability to get himself in an area maybe not with help right away and he can find himself in a pickle hanging onto the puck too long. But I think as he goes up and as guys get comfortable playing with him, it's going to be a special thing."
The numbers Novak has amassed to this point in the USHL as a center won't blow people away, especially compared to what McDavid, Eichel, and Strome are accomplishing.
Last season, Novak scored 26 goals with 70 points in high school for St. Thomas Academy, but now, it's been about adjusting to a new level of play.
"In high school it was a little slower than what I'm playing right now," Novak said. "You could just go make plays. You need a little more patience. It's a little faster game so you've got to be moving a little bit more."
The progress he's made moving on from high school to the USHL has been noticeable already.
"Like most players that make that jump, he needs to play harder on a more consistent basis," Greg Rajanen of NHL Central Scouting said. "However, he is making strides in that area."
Thomas Novak is committed to join the University of Minnesota in 2015. (Photo: Brandon Anderson/BA Photos)
Those may sound like the words of someone who is disappointed with what Novak has done so far. That's not the case.
"He has Patrick Kane-like hands and puck handling ability," Rajanen said. "He has quick hands. He's quick out of the blocks in all directions and handles the puck very well with creative puck play seen. He's a point-producer type."
A comparison to Kane when it comes to the ability to move and handle the puck is a lofty one and a good reason why Novak was one of the A-rated players on Central Scouting Service's Players to Watch list in November. A-rated players are projected to be potential first-round picks in the 2015 NHL Draft.
Novak is committed to join the University of Minnesota in 2015.
"My parents have always been big on education," Novak said. "Just in general, going the college route will help me get a little bigger and stronger other than the major-junior route. I think that's what I need most."
Adding size and strength is something he'll need in the pro game. Novak is 6-feet tall and 180 pounds and while his playmaking skills have been evident, being able to withstand the physical demands of the game at higher levels is something they're working on now in the USHL.
"He's never going to be a banger, he's not that type of player," O'Handley said. "He's a thoughtful player. He's a playmaking-type guy. That part of his game, I think he understands and is working at it. I don't think he's ever had to do it, but he certainly can; he's been willing. He just needs to bump a little bit more. He's willing to do it, but he's still learning."
Learning and doing are two different things, but that's where the instruction Novak gets playing in Waterloo is paying dividends.
"You're going to play on the TV someday, which is what we talk about a lot with our high-end guys, you have to, even though you're a high-skill player, you still have to be a hard player." O'Handley said. "You have to check, you have to shoot sometimes rather than stickhandle. You have to simplify some things. I see lots of improvement there and there's still lots more to go, however."