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You don’t make the highest level of professional hockey without being a high-end skater. It’s generally well accepted that it’s skating the separates the minor leagues from the bigs, and the players that fans tend to think aren’t good skaters – Douglas Murray, Ryan Smyth, Hal Gill, and Colton Orr come to mind – are better skaters than your average hockey player by miles (the biggest difference tends to be balance). The current speed of the game throws context all out of whack.
So to be able watch NHL games and notice players that are quite clearly faster than others is a real compliment to those exceptional few.
With the 2013-14 NHL season taking shape it seemed like the right time to pay homage to the 10 most exceptional skaters in the NHL today, from household names to burgeoning stars. In the interest of narrowing down the list, we went with straight-up speed as our focus.
From the top:
#10 Mason Raymond
Mason Raymond might be the most pure north-south skater on this list. It’s not that he’s not great at the east-west stuff, he’s just a machine built for a drag race, not NASCAR. Which is to say, if the 10 players on this list were to hop on a frozen river and race for 500 feet or so, there’s a good chance his nose is in the mix at the finish line.
That means that every time Raymond blocks a shot or ends up in a flat out footrace, he’s going to be the guy getting first touch on the puck, and in situations like the one below, those extras strides are all he needs to get his also-quite-good shot off.
#9 Sidney Crosby
This ranking upsets just about every hockey fan on Earth. The more Penguins-inclined can’t fathom some of the names that are on this list ahead of The Greatest Hockey Player on Planet Earth (wait ’til you see who’s ahead of him!), while those who believe Crosby gets too much love think he’s just receiving another token nod.
The fact is, Crosby is an absolute terror coming through the neutral zone, and he has his feet to thank (among other things).
I often say that Pavel Datsyuk is one of the few players in the league with the ability to straight-up strafe left and right like he’s in a video game. Crosby, along with one other person on this list, is probably tied for second-best in that regard. To go with that he’s got underrated top speed, so when he does decide to just drop the throttle and pin it (instead of using the aforementioned strafe button), you’ll see plays that catch d-men off guard like the one below.
#8 Colin Greening
Colin Greening is probably the least known player on this list, but he’s more than deserving.
In the 2012 All-Star Skills Competition Greening was one of the players chosen to participate in the fastest skater competition, and it wasn’t a mistake. In a group with many of the names you’ll find below, Greening recorded the quickest lap of anyone in the group, clocking in at 12.963. He then went on to the finals for another lap, where his time of 13.303 was a mere tenth of a second from taking the title home. Oh, and he does this at 6’3″ 211, meaning he’s definitely a ton of fun for defensemen to play.
The Senators’ speedy forward was near 40 points in 2011-12 and was on a similar pace last year, thanks in large part to the havoc he creates with his speed.
(Granted, this is against Derek Engellend, but a lot of people look flat-footed when Greening gets moving.)
#7 Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson is the other guy I was referring to when we were talking Crosby – he possesses the ability to move laterally as much as he does north and south. And again, the advantage that gives you is that when you do decide to just put the pedal down, defenders are often caught off guard. Just keep him in front of me, just keep him in front of me, why is he behind me.
If you really think about it, the only impressive thing Karlsson does in the clip below is read the play, step in and break up a potential Panthers fast break, let the play get onside, burst to the net without getting caught, and bury a shot in the perfect place. I mean, whatever.
#6 Duncan Keith
Some people in the hockey community refer to Keith as “Bambi” because of the graceful, deer-like manner with which he skips across the top of the ice. The first time I ever saw him play I couldn’t help but think it looked like he was full of helium. Some long-legged lumbering skaters seem greatly affected by gravity as they carve deep swaths of ice beneath their blades in hopes to get some speed going. When Keith skates, it seems remarkable that he’s able to generate any speed at all given how light on his feet he looks.
Keith is a one-man breakout machine with hockey sense and the ability to make the first pass. Essentially, he’s been designed in a factory to get the puck moving the right way when he’s on the ice.
Ignore the fact that this is a terrible goal to let in, and focus on his footwork in transition. I’d call the dude Fred Astaire if that title didn’t rightfully belong to the players below this.
#5 Matt Duchene
Just last week I was so floored by Matt Duchene’s skating ability that I more or less wrote it a love letter. I was focusing on his dynamic ability to change direction, but it’s the same first few strides that make him a killer on straightaways. Have you ever got in a fancy car (like say, maybe a Lexus?), stepped on the gas and been like “I’m going how fast right now? But it’s so smooth.” That’s how this guy skates. He’s looks like he’s built to do what he’s doing.
The best part for guys like Duchene is that once they get their reputation built up enough, d-men back in to avoid getting roasted wide, and the room to make lateral plays starts to open up inside the blueline. Speed kills, because if it doesn’t get you in the raw form, it can mess up your mental game and cause bad gaps.
Here’s Duchene looking bored roasting an NHL defenseman. Nahbad.
#4 Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel reminds me of a pinball off the initial shot when he’s moving through the neutral zone, especially when he jumps from a flat-footed start in his own end. He’s just a ball of potential energy poised to spring past what suddenly appears to be a bunch of stationary objects.
The scary part with Kessel is that his shot can be described in a similar manner, meaning the Leafs’ forward is a constant threat to turn an average moment into a goal with little help from anyone else. I chose the goal below because I love Seidenberg reaching with his stick to literally just touch him. Like catching him is so hopeless maybe showing that he was only a stick-length back is better than not trying at all.
#3 Darren Helm
Darren Helm generally looks like he’s doing the same thing everyone else is doing, only suddenly he’s a step ahead of the guy beside him, then two, then the guy is swinging at him with his stick hoping he’s even close enough to take a penalty on.
He’s been hurt so far this season, but when the Red Wings do get him back they’re going to find themselves with a nice mix of burners and thinkers, making them extremely hard to deal with.
He’s an expert at using his wheels to eat up the clock on the penalty kill too. It’s no wonder the Wings love him so much.
#2 Michael Grabner
I don’t even think what I’m about to write is an unreasonable statement: Michael Grabner might get twice the breakaways of whoever gets the second most in the league. Now, having feet made of lightning doesn’t preclude one from having hands made of granite, so I think there are probably players in the league who score on more breakaways than him, but man, does he get a ridiculous amount. I’m talking an average of one a night. Some games the guy uses his speed to generate a handful.
I think the picture above beautifully describes what you’re dealing with in Grabner. His mindset is pure GO. His three gears are red, yellow and green, and like most engines, he’d prefer to be operating in green.
I found a compilation of top five Grabner goals (as an Islanders) that includes four breakaways, and a shout-out to my Dad, so I didn’t hesitate on picking a video for this guy.
#1 Carl Hagelin
Hagelin gets the oh-so-narrow bump above Grabner because when he won his skills competition, his times were considerably better. I know that’s total garbage and unfounded and ice speed is a real thing and conditions were different and ENOUGH – arguing that one of these guys is faster is like arguing over which identical twin is better looking. There’s not really a right answer.
Hagelin is on the IR for the Rangers so far this year, and I’m guessing that at 1-4 with a -16 goal differential they’re fairly eager to get Hagelin’s wheels back in the lineup.
How do you like the first few strides here once the puck bounces the d-man’s stick? His legs look like Sonic the Hedgehog in full spin about to blast through a wall.