That they are here together in Los Angeles really isn’t all that surprising. The two have been friends for quite some time, after all. That they’re here under the same circumstances, however, could be considered somewhat of a shock.
Michal Handzus and Ladislav Nagy are leaving behind more than just their former teams and native country of Slovakia to don the Los Angeles Kings’ uniform. They are also giving a not so fond farewell to last season, a final goodbye to a year of disappointment. One that began with high hopes, but ended in frustration.
“I worked hard this summer,” said Nagy. “My last year was not very good. I didn’t score a lot of goals. But this year I want to change that with a new team. I just want to have a better year than last year.”
“For me, I didn’t play most of last year,” answered Handzus. “Since October [of 2006], I’ve been trying to get healthy, get a new life. I had a long way to go to get to this season. Now, I’m excited.”
The struggles of a year ago were different for each – Nagy due to lack of performance and Handzus because of injury – but they were struggles just the same. Now, both find themselves in Los Angeles ready for a new beginning, ready for a fresh start.
A Dependable Reputation
Handzus began the 2006-07 campaign, his eighth in the National Hockey League, with high hopes. Acquired by the Chicago Blackhawks in an August trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, he was seen as a veteran presence on a young squad that knew they would have to scratch and claw just to sniff a spot in the playoffs.
But, just eight games and eight points (3-5-8) into the season, on Oct. 21, 2006, against the St. Louis Blues, Handzus took a late third period hit and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He and the Blackhawks were done.
Once the free agent market opened this summer, though, the Kings were no longer concerned with Handzus’ season-ending injury. The center’s track record was such that they knew the team could benefit from his presence – all 6’5”, 217 lbs. of presence.
“When free agency started, they were right on me,” said Handzus. “They called right away, within the first 10 minutes. I felt they had me in their plans right from the start.”
Despite the setback from a year ago, Handzus’ career resume stood out. Taken by St. Louis in the fourth round of the 1995 draft, he finally came to North America three years later, scoring 63 points (27-36=63) in 69 games for Worcester, the team’s affiliate in the American Hockey League. He made his NHL debut the following year and went on to play two-plus seasons with the Blues, collecting 93 points (39-54=93) in 103 games. Traded to Phoenix in March of 2001, he finished out that season with eight points (4-4=8) in 10 games for the Coyotes, then came back the next year and tacked on 45 more (15-30=45).
Another deal would send him off to Philadelphia prior to the 2002-03 season, where he played in every single game over the next two years. After picking up a career-high 23 goals in his first term with the Flyers, he came back the second season and posted career highs in assists (38) and points (58). He would return for one more year in Philly, 2005-06, totaling a solid 44 points (11-33=44) in 73 games.
Though never flashy and often overlooked, through the years Handzus’ reputation grew around the NHL because of one singular trait, dependability.
“I learned when I was younger that you have to be consistent,” he said. “Since my first year in the NHL, I’ve wanted to be a player that a coach or team could count on every game. I think the best way to describe it is I just try and get better every game and that kind of thinking is what pushes me. I think that’s what I’m known for and I’m proud of it.”
That dependability is what the Kings will be asking from him now. Dependability not only on the ice, taking care of the puck on both ends of the rink, but also off it, serving as a leader for a rising, young team.
“Sure, I want to be that guy,” responded Handzus. “I think every player wants to be that guy. If not, then the player has a problem because everybody wants to be a leader and everybody wants to have their team get to the next level. Obviously, I know they signed me to be an important player. I’m looking forward to it.”
Ready to Score
While the reason for Handzus wanting to get past a disappointing 2006-07 season is clear, the struggles for Nagy last year were a little less black and white. There was no injury to overcome. Rather his dissatisfaction came from perhaps failing to meet his own expectations.
Like Handzus, Nagy was originally selected by the Blues, taken in the seventh round of the 1997 draft. He found his way across the Atlantic a year later, playing hockey for Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 1998-99, where he deposited an impressive 126 points (71-55=126) in just 63 games.
Nagy then spent most of the 1999-2000 season with Worcester, but made his NHL debut that same year, joining Handzus with the Blues. He would split his time between St. Louis and the AHL club the following season, picking up 16 points in 40 games for the Blues before heading off to Phoenix in the same deal that sent Handzus to the Coyotes.
There in the desert is where Nagy seemingly found his stride. After posting 42 (23-19=42) and 57 (22-35=57) points in his first two full seasons with the team, he bounced back with 52 points (24-28=52) in 55 games in 2003-04, and then added 56 points (15-41=56) in only 51 contests in 2004-05. He had become what many thought he would be, a point-per=game player.
But his momentum stalled last year as he saw his total drop to 41 points (8-33=41) in 55 games. He was taken off the power play at one point, even benched a game, and although he was the Coyotes’ leading scorer at the time, was eventually traded to Dallas in February.
There, his high-scoring pace never quite fit in with the Stars’ more pedestrian offense. He managed just 14 points (4-10=14) in the team’s final 25 games. While he once again totaled 55 points overall for the year, he considered the performance a setback.
“Hopefully, it’s going to be much better for me,” he said about his 2007-08 season. “Last year was not very good. This is going to be a new start for me.”
Although several teams were interested in his services despite the sub-par results of year ago, the decision to sign with the Kings during the summer was really a simple one for Nagy.
“My agent talked to me about playing for L.A.,” he said. “L.A. sounded the most interesting. A lot of guys want to play there because it’s a great organization and a great city. And, they have a lot of young guys on the team, and they’re building. I just said, ‘I’d love to.’”
The fit certainly seems right for both sides. The Kings needed another scoring threat on their top two lines, while Nagy usually thrives in the kind of up-tempo style that head coach Marc Crawford utilizes. Becoming a point-per-game player again is the very least Nagy expects.
“We have a lot of new players in L.A. this year and everybody wants to go to the playoffs,” said Nagy. “That’s my key. That’s what I want to try and do. It’s just going to be exciting for me to play with those guys.”
Obviously, given their history, from playing in Slovakia to coming up with the Blues, to even being traded together to the Coyotes, Handzus and Nagy are good friends. Both admit that playing alongside the other again was part of their motivation for signing with the Kings. They even inked their respective contracts on the same day.
“I’ve played with Michal before, and we know each other,” said Nagy. “Hopefully that will work out good. But, I know a lot of guys there. I played with [Lubomir] Visnovsky on the national team. I know [Alexander] Frolov really good. I can’t wait to play.”
Though whether they skate on the same line or not remains to be seen, the Slovakian pair will each bring a distinct strength to the team. Handzus can provide size and strength up front, creating havoc for opposing forwards on both ends of the ice, while Nagy will bring speed and a defter scoring touch.
Still, despite their different styles, they came to Los Angeles under similar circumstances, needing a fresh start after a year of disappointment. Together they hope to find that success again. Together they need a chance to prove themselves again, both in their own minds and in the eyes of others around the NHL. Together, they are determined to lead their team to the playoffs.
Together they hope the Kings can give them a new beginning.
Written by Kurt Daniels and originally printed in Royal Reign.