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Gopher Rookies Shine for Admirals

 

by Jason Karnosky

On a veteran-laden Admirals squad that claimed the AHL's regular season title, two rookies from same Big Ten school made a huge impact.

Tommy Novak and Rem Pitlick, who both just completed their first professional season after playing three years together at the University of Minnesota (2016-2019), finished third and sixth respectively on the Admirals in points. The pair held Milwaukee’s top two center roles on the league's best team during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.

“All of our rookies were outstanding for us and were a big part of our team,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “We had three rookie centers down the middle, Rem, Tommy and Josh Wilkins, and they played huge minutes for us. They meant a lot in what we were trying to do, which was win here and in doing that help players with their development.”

The similarities between the two first-year Milwaukee forwards go far beyond just sharing an alma mater. Novak and Pitlick are almost exactly the same age, 23, with each having a birthday in April of 1997. Before they became teammates in Milwaukee, the pair were teammates growing up playing AAA summer hockey with the Minnesota Blades. Later Novak and Pitlick played a year of junior hockey together on the Waterloo Blackhawks of the United States Hockey League (USHL).

Finally, each skater was drafted in the third round by the Nashville Predators, with Novak getting selected 85th overall in 2015, while Pitlick went 76th overall in 2016.

“Both Rem and Tommy are incredibly skilled players,” Admirals goaltender Troy Grosenick said. “We were lucky because sometimes it takes time for the rookies to buy-in and realize how tough it is to win games in the AHL, but those guys kind of fell in line right away. It was a great dynamic for our team as a whole and hopefully they can keep progressing as far as their careers.”

Novak, who is 26 days younger than his fellow Golden Gophers alum, was the first to take the next step and play for the “U”, enrolling as a freshman at Minnesota for the 2015-16 season. There Novak turned in four years of strong play, first under legendary Minnesota coach Don Lucia and later as a senior for coach Bob Motzko. Novak enjoyed his best offensive season as a freshman—scoring six goals and 27 points to rank fifth on the Golden Gophers.

“At Minnesota Tommy Novak was a prototype skilled centerman would distributed the puck really well,” said Lucia, who recruited both Novak and Pitlick to the Golden Gophers. “If you are goal scoring forward, you wanted to play with him because he would always get you the puck.”

Novak ranked third on the team in scoring in 2017-18 after a 26-point season, and then posted 21 points as a senior before turning professional.

“Tommy became a great defensive center and he was often used as a shutdown center,” Lucia said. “He was a very good penalty killer, a very well-rounded player and his hockey IQ was always off the charts.”

Novak got off to a slow start with the Admirals, picking up just one point in his first nine games. However, on November 6, 2019, the River Falls, Wisconsin native broke out in a big way, picking up his first AHL goal and totaling four points in Milwaukee’s 6-4 win over Manitoba.

“Tommy had to wait a bit early on for his opportunity,” Taylor said. “Daniel Carr got sent down and we were trying to find someone who would complement him and Tommy Novak was the perfect piece. They played really well together, and Tommy had a great season for us. He has more to do to be an NHL prospect, but he’s a young man that has taken advantage of a second opportunity and he’s done a great job of it.”

Novak continued to stay hot as the Milwaukee posted a team-record 13-game winning streak throughout November, finding terrific chemistry playing center alongside Carr and veteran Cole Schneider.

“Tommy’s a young guy that sees the ice so well and he’s got a lot of talent,” said Carr, the AHL’s Most Valuable Player for the 2018-19 season. “He was at the University of Minnesota, and didn’t produce as much as he wanted to his last couple of years there. Then he turned professional and played in tougher league and he tore it up. It was great to see him do that and play so well as a rookie.”

Novak led all Admirals first-year players with 42 points, and finished behind only his linemates Carr and Schneider on the squad as whole.

“Tommy’s nickname is the ice man because of how well he sees the ice,” Grosenick said. “He’s calm, cool and collected out there, and it’s great having those high-end skill type guys playing for us.”

Novak’s point total ranked him seventh overall among all AHL rookies.

“I think I came to Milwaukee playing pretty good hockey, but this year I got some opportunities that even surprised myself a bit,” Novak said. “It was a really good year for me, and all of the coaches and the players helped a lot. They made it pretty easy for me to come in and be myself.”

Pitlick was impressed with his fellow rookie’s 2019-20 performance.

“Tom’s a very skilled player and I’ve learned a lot from watching him,” Pitlick said. “He's great guy, a funny guy, and he definitely has some magic hands.”

Pitlick struggled in his first USHL season with Waterloo in 2014-15, but as Novak went on to Minnesota, the talented forward stayed around for another season in the league. It proved to be a terrific decision, as Pitlick, who was born in Ottawa, Ontario but lived most of his life in the Twin Cities area, posted a staggering 46-goal, 89-point season with Muskegon in 2015-16.

When he moved on to college hockey for the 2016-17 campaign, Pitlick was an immediate force with the Golden Gophers, scoring 14 goals and 32 points as a freshman.

“[Compared to Tommy] Rem was more of a speed-based, highly-skilled forward who could really shoot the puck,” Lucia said. “He was thick and very strong, but his ability to shoot the puck was what really stood out for him.”

He then led the team with 31 points as a sophomore, and did the same the following year after posting 21 goals and 45 points in 2018-19.

“Rem’s dad Lance Pitlick actually played for Minnesota before moving on to an NHL career, so he was on our radar at a very young age,” Lucia said. “He was a smaller guy, and a little immature when he committed to Minnesota, but you could see his skill level, his skating ability, and his quick release with his shot. You knew down the line that he was going to be a really good player.”

Pitlick and Novak both cherished their time at on the Golden Gophers, playing for one of college hockey’s most prestigious programs.

“Minnesota is a very prideful school and a lot of players are really proud of their time there,” Novak said. “It was a dream come to true to play there with a friend like Rem, as well as play with a bunch of other guys that I had played with for a long time before. It was definitely a fun time getting the chance to put that jersey on for every game.”

For Pitlick, it was extra special to play for the Gopher Gophers, knowing his father had also sported a maroon and gold sweater around the same age.

“My three years at Minnesota was some of the best years of my life, and I can go on and on saying great things about it and the culture that is there,” Pitlick said. “Being a Minnesota guy and watching the Gophers growing up, getting to play for them was surreal. The Gophers are like professional hockey when you are a little kid, so you have those dreams of playing there. Getting the chance to play there was amazing.”

After amassing a record 736-403-102 record over 31 years of coaching at the Division 1 college level, Lucia retired from coaching in the summer of 2018. Lucia’s retirement came one year before Novak and Pitlick turned professional, but the famed Golden Gophers bench boss still keeps tabs on players that have played for him, including the Admirals rookies.

“Both of those guys (Rem and Tommy) have really good work ethics, and everything I’ve been hearing about them in Milwaukee has been really positive,” said Lucia, who owns a pair of national titles and numerous Frozen Fours berths on his coaching resume. “They both had great years, and hopefully they will be on the radar of Nashville to get called up soon.”

Pitlick’s professional hockey experience started in earnest when he turned pro in the spring of 2019. After signing an entry-level deal, Pitlick dressed for the Predators in their March 25 contest in St. Paul, Minnesota against the Minnesota Wild. It was quite the homecoming for the Twin Cities area native.

“It was fantastic to get the chance to play for Nashville, and a dream come true for me,” Pitlick said. “It was something that I had been training for my whole life. I am grateful for that opportunity, but I want to be much more than a one-game player in the NHL. That’s what I am working towards.”

Pitlick officially joined the Admirals for the following season, and like his buddy Novak, things started slowly for him as a professional. Pitlick managed just five points, all assists, in his first 14 games in a Milwaukee uniform. Once the rookie sniper got his first AHL goal in the Admirals’ November 13, 2019, 6-3 drubbing of Chicago, the goals started to pour in. Pitlick scored six more goals in his next six games, including a two-goal effort in a memorable 6-5 shootout win over rival Iowa on November 19.

“I’ve known Remmer since he was a really little kid,” Grosenick said. “Rem would come out and skate with us when he was like 12 years old, and he always had high-end skill even back then. He has some quick twitch-type muscles and incredibly quick hands.”

Pitlick proved to be an especially dangerous weapon on the man advantage. Of the forward’s 20 goals (which ranked third on the squad and fifth among all AHL rookies), half of those tallies came on the power play, which led all Admirals. Those 10 power-play goals also ranked first in the league among rookies (tied with Belleville’s Josh Norris).

“Rem has a lot of promise, a lot of upside to his game, and were not sure yet on just how far he can go as a player,” Taylor said. “He ended up scoring 20 goals this year as a rookie in the American Hockey League, and that is a lot of goals. Rem played really well for us and we could use him at both wing and center. He was on our first power play unit, and we ended up second in the league in power-play scoring, so he was a big part of that.”

What was even more impressive about Pitlick’s power-play numbers is the fact that he posted them while playing a position he was very unfamiliar with.

“It was the first time ever in my life that I played that spot on the power play, in the middle of the ice,” Pitlick said. “I watched a lot of video, talked to a few people and needed to learn how to play there. You don’t get as many touches in that position, but you are there to tip and support the puck. (Playing there) added another level of versatility for me as a player.”

Pitlick finished with 36 points on the league-leading Admirals—which left him six points behind his college buddy Novak.

However, the rookies relished the chance to experience their first year of professional hockey together.

“It was really cool playing my first year professionally with Tommy,” Pitlick said. “I didn’t get to experience my freshman year with him at Minnesota, since he went to school a year earlier than me, but this year I got to play with someone who I knew well, and who was going through the same experiences that I was.”

Novak enjoyed all of the summers of competing with Pitlick and appreciated being able to continue his hockey career alongside the talented forward.

“When I was around 10 I joined the Blades, and that’s where I met Rem,” Novak said. “His dad was coaching the team and we pretty much played together every summer since then. We’ve been on and off playing together for a long time.”

Both players, Pitlick and Novak, will likely factor in Milwaukee’s plans for next season and expectations for the 2020-21 Admirals will be high. Milwaukee, which won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy for finishing with the best record in the AHL (41-14-5-3—90 points) during the regular season, will be gunning to finish what they could not this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak—winning a Calder Cup title.

“It was great to be a part of this team and the winning culture we had here,” Pitlick said. “The guys were great and I was really happy with how the season went. But I always want more and I expect more out of myself. Whenever hockey comes back I will be ready to go.”

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