Join Date: May 2002
Nagy Getting National Props
Special to ESPN.com
OK, who is Ladislav Nagy and what's he doing crowding the NHL's scoring race?
With 10 goals in 20 games, Ladislav Nagy is almost half-way to his career high of 23 set in 2001-02.
This can't be the same Ladislav Nagy who arrived from Slovakia five years ago, shuffled from the St. Louis Blues' training camp to junior hockey in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he sat in his room for days unable to speak a word of English, pining for home, can it?
The one who was subsequently traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for one of the team's biggest-ever stars, Keith Tkachuk, and who was promptly made a healthy scratch after only a handful of games?
And now he's freezing NHL defenders and lighting up goaltenders at a pace that would put him in the 90-point range?
Yep, that Ladislav Nagy.
At 24 years old, the native of the Slovakian city of Saca has a team-best 21 points in 20 games, including an assist in Monday's 5-2 loss at Dallas.
And if he seems like a revelation, the scoring star that fell to earth, he is simply delivering on promise the Coyotes saw when they first acquired him at the 2001 trade deadline.
"Ladislav possesses a lot of skill," Phoenix coach Bob Francis said. "And he's entering a state of his career where his confidence level is growing.
"You've seen glimpses of it over the last couple of years. But there were questions about his focus and his consistency. Now, I think he realizes the ability he has and has acquired the drive to get to the next level."
Said senior executive vice president Cliff Fletcher, who orchestrated the trade: "There's no question about it, one-on-one he's as dangerous a player as there is. We felt (at the beginning of this season) it was going to be a breakthrough year for him. We were pretty confident he could get to the 30-goal level."
Nagy's breakout start to the season has come despite a succession of new linemates after a long-term shoulder injury to Mike Johnson, whom Nagy played most of the last two years along with Daymond Langkow.
"They were our most consistent line," said Francis.
Then, after finding instant karma with countryman and close friend Branko Radivojevic and Czech playmaker Jan Hrdina, the unit was broken up when Hrdina suffered a broken toe on Nov. 16.
"Regardless of who you play Ladislav with, the line is still going to be effective," Francis said.
Among the notable differences in Nagy's game is his willingness to shoot the puck, and more to the point, his willingness to put himself in position to make shots count.
He has learned, Francis said, to find shooting lanes and to use them.
His 65 shots through 20 games are second on the Coyotes to Shane Doan. In Sunday's 1-0 loss to Atlanta, the second straight game in which the Coyotes were shut out and the third straight game without a point for Nagy, he had the team's best chances.
"I'm not going to get frustrated," he said. "(Atlanta goaltender Pasi) Nurminen made an incredible save. A couple of games ago, that would have gone in."
"I'm just a little bit surprised," he said of his blazing start. "I'm just trying to do the little things and just everything is going great now."
Nagy is one of those rare offensive players who can freeze a defenseman with his one-on-one moves, Francis said. A typical Nagy scoring chance involves freezing the opposing defender with a move and then firing through him to the net.
"Along with confidence comes patience," Francis said. "He's got a great release."
I'm just a little bit surprised. I'm just trying to do the little things and just everything is going great now. ”
— Ladislav Nagy
The Blues' sixth choice, 177th overall, in the 1997 draft, Nagy was immediately shipped to Halifax, where he admits he wished early on he could go home.
"I didn't speak any English, maybe a couple of words," Nagy recalled. "I didn't understand anything."
Soon, teammates like Colorado Avalanche star Alex Tanguay helped Nagy to feel more comfortable in his new hockey home. His homesickness diminished and he responded with a 71-goal, 126-point output in 1998-99, his second season in North America. The 5-foot-11 Nagy also chipped in 148 penalty minutes, the most among the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's top 20 point-producers.
After bouncing between the NHL and the Blues' AHL affiliate in Worcester, Mass., Nagy was traded to Phoenix and presented with the kinds of opportunities all scorers relish -- more ice time and quality power-play time.
Since enduring a period of transition during which he was a healthy scratch on several occasions, Nagy has registered two 20-goal seasons in a row and saw his point production jump from 42 two years ago to 57 last season.
"It was tough, new players, new everything," he recalled. "That was tough. I didn't play well."
Now that he is, there is a price to be paid on a number of fronts. Defensive players pay more attention to him and the pressure to produce consistently has risen. After rarely encountering interview requests, reporters want to talk after games, even if the team has played poorly.
"Right now there's more attention," Nagy said. "Right now a lot of media guys talk to me. In the past, nobody talked to me.
"Actually, I enjoy it. But sometimes it's tough."
There have even been calls from his native Slovakia, where honored status remains reserved for the Stastny family, Zigmund Palffy and Pavol Demitra.
"That's OK," Nagy said of his relative anonymity at home. "If you're not in the news it means you can go anywhere."
If there has been a comfort zone, it has reached in part through familiarity both on and off the ice. When he first arrived in Phoenix the single Nagy moved in with defenseman and fellow Slovakian Radoslav Suchy. The two, along with linemate Radivojevic, are inseparable away from the ice. They have taken up golf and the trio enjoys upping the competitive stakes with friendly side bets, at least on the par 3s.
"Suchy's pretty good because he started early," Nagy explained.
On the road, the three are constant dinner companions.
"Sometimes it's too much," Nagy said with a laugh.
Although he has since moved out on his own, (Suchy admits it might have had something to do with his girlfriend having to clean up after two hockey players not just one), Nagy won't long for the comforts of his homeland thanks to his mother who will soon arrive for an extended visit.
"She's a really good cook," said Nagy, the youngest of three children.
The question that remains unanswered is whether this first intoxicating brush with stardom will be a lasting relationship, or whether Nagy will suffer the lapses that many talented players do in the course of a long season.
In the past, he'd be on fire for four or five games, "and then you wouldn't see him for four or five games," Francis said. "Up to this point he's been as consistent as he's been in his career."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.