It’s not often that you hear a coach call a 20-year-old rookie pro "reliable."
But that’s how ECHL Trenton Devils coach Rick Kowalsky feels about Kory Nagy. Tied for the best plus/minus on the team, and part of the top penalty-killing unit, Nagy is mature for his age both on and off the ice.
He’s already a businessman, opening a gym in the Kitchener, Ontario area with his older brother. His brother will run it, but Kory sees it as something to fall back on beyond his hockey career.
Given his maturity level, it’s no surprise that he turned pro as soon as he could. With a fall birthday, Nagy had the option to go back to junior and play another year for the Oshawa Generals. But he chose to sign with the New Jersey Devils and move into the minor leagues.
"I figured I might as well start pursuing my professional career as soon as possible," he said. "It’s just that much better playing with men. I don’t think playing junior would have benefited me as much as coming here and playing."
His adjustment to the pro game was easy, since he plays a very pro-style game to start with.
"The pace is a little faster and the guys are obviously older and bigger." Nagy observed. "You don’t have as much time with the puck."
"I think he made the right decision to sign and get in the organization," Kowalsky said. "In the long run, he’s going to be a prototypical New Jersey Devil. He’s very strong in his own end, good on faceoffs, a great penalty killer and really ahead of his time in my opinion in that aspect of the game. Physically, he can handle the older, stronger guys at this level and he just gets the game defensively. A lot of guys are down here because they have a certain skill set or a certain level of toughness, but they don’t know how to play on both sides of the puck. Kory definitely has the defensive side figured out at a young age."
Last year with Oshawa, Nagy had an offensive breakout, scoring 55 points in 63 games, after just 17 points the year before. The Devils organization wants to continue to see him develop his offense.
"I think the biggest thing for him here is he’s going to get put in some situations where he can kind of expand his game offensively," Kowalsky said. "He can shoot the puck, he’s got pretty good hands, and he’ll just have to get the confidence. He always thinks defense first and sometimes will hold back offensively. So that’s something that we’ve talked about and we’re looking to get him to push things and be more dynamic offensively. I’m putting him with guys who are good defensively, but who also can get him to do some stuff a little more creatively with the puck."
So far, Nagy has four goals and six assists in 24 games with Trenton, playing with various linemates, but lately Trevor Kell and Jack Combs. Last year in Oshawa, Nagy’s linemates pushed him to be more offensive too, as he was paired with current Calder Trophy candidate John Tavares before Tavares was traded away. Nagy took a lot of confidence away from that opportunity.
"Yeah, he definitely helped me with [my confidence] because he really knew where to go and he was open all the time," Nagy said. "He could find me with the puck. It made me work that much more too, to get points with him."
Nagy now watches Tavares on TV playing with the NY Islanders when he can. On bus trips, the team will catch a game or two. Nagy also keeps an eye on former teammate Michael Del Zotto, a rookie defenseman for the nearby NY Rangers.
"I need to plan a trip to go see him," Nagy said.
Nagy doesn’t quite have the pedigree of those two former first-rounders, but he’s got the same destination on tap. Unranked by Central Scouting in 2008, Nagy was taken by the New Jersey Devils in the fifth round, 142nd overall.
He’s tried to prove himself in New Jersey’s training camp the past two years.
"Last year I was more nervous and anxious," he said. "This year I was kind of more relaxed and I knew I was coming in with a chance to get a job so I just bore down and worked my butt off."
With the AHL Lowell Devils in October, Nagy saw one game of action, where he said he got good ice time and had fun. But he was headed to Trenton shortly afterward.
"It was four or five games into the season, and I hadn’t played yet," Nagy recalled. "The coach said he wanted to get me in just to see how I was, but their plans basically were for me to come here anyway."
New Jersey felt the ECHL would be the best fit for him this year, where he would see a lot of ice time.
"They basically just said to get my confidence up," Nagy said. "My defensive skills are pretty good, I just need to work on my offensive skills a little bit. Get comfortable and confident. They said they would let me develop a little bit, then bring me up next year."
With Trenton being just 35-40 minutes from the Devils arena, New Jersey can keep a close eye on him.
"They kind of stay away from the room, but I’m sure they’re there all the time," Nagy said. "So you’ve got a little pressure every night, but it’s a good pressure."
And what New Jersey sees should look rather familar, as Kowalsky said that he has his team playing a very similar system to New Jersey in all three zones. This should make it easier for players to move up in the system seamlessly.
Having played both center and wing all his life, Nagy has settled in at center in Trenton.
"I think [New Jersey] wants to use me as a center because I have more freedom to skate and more responsibility in the defensive zone down low — that’s basically my strong point," he said.
At 5’11, 195 pounds, Nagy has a low center of gravity and is hard to knock over. And don’t forget the speed.
"He’s got two different types of skating ability — when he crosses over, he’s in motion, he has good speed," Kowalsky said. "He’s also a guy who from a start can really get his feet moving."
Nagy might be the fastest player on the team, but neither his coach nor Nagy were willing to hazard a guess. There may be a skills competition to settle the question when the team returns to practice this week.
Nagy has gotten some chances on the power play, but the PK is his bread and butter, the best use of his abilities.
What’s the secret of a good PK, according to Nagy?
"Hard work," he said. "And position. You have to keep moving and keep your head on a swivel. And you have to know where to go. Practice makes perfect."
Understanding that he’s likely to stay in Trenton all year, Nagy’s goals for the year are team-focused: "Continue what I’m doing, make the playoffs for sure, keep working hard, stay in the lineup — I’d like to play every single game — and stay healthy."