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Experts debate NHL's fastest skater

Thursday, 01.22.2009 / 1:00 AM / 2009 NHL All-Star Game

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

"Some guys seem to be even faster when they have the puck and that's more important than anything. They get the puck and then they get going faster. Some guys are so smooth in their stride that they glide by guys who are working hard."
-- Kevyn Adams

Whenever hockey-skating experts are asked who the fastest NHL skaters are, they invariably ask, "Straight ahead, lateral movement or pursuit of puck?"

Speed is valued in hockey, but the ability to get to a loose puck is more highly regarded than winning the goal line to goal line warm-up drill in practice.

In fact, winning the goal line-red line-blue line-red line-blue line-other blue line-red line-goal line race is more highly regarded than the pure speed, goal line to goal line race. The more complex drill requires speed, quickness and stamina, all necessary for success in the NHL.

When it comes to quickness vs. top-end speed, scouts, general managers and coaches put a higher premium on quickness.

"Some guys seem to be even faster when they have the puck and that's more important than anything," said Kevyn Adams, a 2006 Stanley Cup winner who recently retired. Adams was a penalty-killing specialist, so he got to look at a lot of top NHL players when they were skating against less resistance. "They get the puck and then they get going faster.

"Some guys are so smooth in their stride that they glide by guys who are working hard. Bret Hedican is like that. Even when he's skating fast he doesn't look fast, except in comparison to those trying to stay with him."

Watching Chicago captain Jonathan Toews during a breakout drill recently, he looked like he was hardly working, but he was opening space between himself and his linemates with every stride.

The great players don't rely on their speed alone but use it as part of a total package. There's no one playing today who could match Brian Leetch for speed and deception. He could start behind his goal line and finish with a backhander on the opposing goalie, but four players would fall for his fakes along the way.

"(Leetch would) go by you and you wouldn't know how or why, he was so fast and smooth," Adams said. "Some guys, the way they handle the puck while skating with their head up and looking you off, may be they're not the fastest but they're so deceptive and quick, they beat you.

"Everyone in the building knows what they're going to do and they still do it. I was killing penalties against him and trying to stop him was impossible. I'd get back to the bench and tell teammates that I knew he was going to do that and he still did it anyway. Very frustrating.

"The fastest straightaway skater I ever saw was Geoff Sanderson. You couldn't catch him. The first few steps are critical, if you can separate from your coverage and explode away. Todd Marchant has always had that. But it's rare to be skating straight down the ice in hockey. It's usually quick bursts, stops and starts, so your first few steps are more important than your top speed."

Bill Guerin won the fastest skater competition at the 2001 NHL All-Star Game. Guerin is highly regarded for his ability to find time and space for his great shot, but his straight-ahead speed rarely was seen until his upset victory over the game's fastest players.

Big size sometimes can mean little speed, but Columbus' Rick Nash measures in at 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, but he'd beat a greyhound to a steak eight feet away, according to Columbus Blue Jackets broadcaster Bill Davidge, a great skater himself and a long-time hockey-skating instructor.

"I first saw Rick when I was still doing player development for the Blue Jackets," Davidge said. "I thought he could hardly skate, but when we put pucks out there, you could see his puck hunger. He turns it up another gear. It's the same thing with Boston's Phil Kessel. Rick's not fast but he recently beat two guys to a puck to get an empty netter, the second goal in a shutout. He has tons of puck hunger and that makes him fast in important situations. Dan Boyle, the San Jose Sharks defenseman, has great puck-want, too.

"Boyle also has the best lateral motion of any defenseman at the point on the power play. He combines the lateral motion with a distinct ability to fake that leaves opponents standing still. He's by far the best at lateral motion. I have him ahead of Brian Campbell there."

Washington's Mike Green also has outstanding lateral movement with the puck. He's one of the best at moving with the puck until he finds a better shooting or passing lane.

 
Anaheim Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer long has been regarded as having the best defensive lateral motion. When he locks onto an attacker, his forward thrust toward the net is over. No one slips past Niedermayer, who combines incredible foot quickness with uncanny anticipation.

"Niedermayer, and now Duncan Keith," Adams said. "They're in a world-class category when it comes to closing in on guys. You don't beat Keith to a puck. He may be the most underrated player in the League right now."

Several experts mentioned a player that might surprise you -- Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda.

"He's a thick and heavy kid to look at," Davidge said, "but he can get it going as well as anybody and he has great lateral motion."

Adams said Philadelphia's Danny Briere throws a curveball into the discussion. Briere uses his considerable speed, lateral motion, stickhandling and passing skills to open room that allows him to slow down the game.

Say what?

But it's true. Briere freezes defenders because their fear of his skills allows him to generate time and space, which gives him more options.

NHL.com thanks the experts for clarifying the various elements of "speed" in the NHL, but to get back to the original question, we asked them to name who they wouldn't want to race against, end to end.

"I think Edmonton's Andrew Cogliano is the fastest skater in the NHL," Davidge said. "I watched him when he played for (University of) Michigan and he'd just pull away from guys in the first three or four strides. Matt Lombardi and Mason Raymond are like that, the first three strides and look out -- they're on their way. Marian Gaborik is like that, too. Raymond is so quick up ice, he gets lots of breakaways. If he could only score half the time ...

"For effective pure speed, check out the Blue Jackets' Jason Chimera. … There's nothing but north-south, no lateral in there whatsoever. But when he's going around a defenseman, he has the size and strength to drive the net that you just can't teach."

Adams had a couple of players he'd put near the top in terms of pure speed.
"I first saw Rick when I was still doing player development for the Blue Jackets. I thought he could hardly skate, but when we put pucks out there, you could see his puck hunger. He turns it up another gear" -- Bill Davidge
"Patrick Marleau jumps out, he always looks like he's flying," he said. "And nobody is faster over 60 feet than Hedican. When Erik Cole gets the puck, if he's even with a defenseman, he beats him and goes to the net. There's not many who can do that. Jarome Iginla has explosive speed but that's just part of a whole superior package. He combines speed with finesse and toughness, but it starts with speed.

"Tim Connolly isn't the fastest straight-ahead skater, but what he does better than almost anyone in the world is deke opponents one-on-one at top speed. He can stickhandle you into the ice. This is a tough League one-on-one, but he can beat you and make you look stupid. The fact he's willing to try it is half the battle. He has no fear."

Davidge said that when you combine top-end speed, lateral motion and puck hunger, the fastest player also is the best player -- Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin. Adams agrees.

"Ovechkin has all those things -- puck want, quickness, strength, and the stride to go with all those things," Davidge said. "That's why he is the best player in the game today."

"It's just his hunger for the puck," Adams said. "Jonathan Toews is in that category. If those guys go for a puck, there's no doubt they will come out with it. Boyle has that, too. Phil Kessel is so shifty side-to-side, when he gets the puck on his stick it's hard to pin down where he's going with his quick feet."