Top all-time speed demons have changed face of NHL
Few things in any sport are as exciting as watching an elite skater blaze past an opponent, leaving him looking like he's standing still. End-to-end rushes and breakaways are the types of plays that bring fans out of their seats.
The speed of an NHL game has never been faster, as teams put more and more emphasis on skating. But not every great player is a great skater -- Wayne Gretzky, for one, admitted he wasn't all that fast -- and there are players who can fly but aren't as skilled in the other aspects of the game.
Still, there's no getting around the importance of speed. With that in mind, here's a look at seven of the fastest skaters in NHL history:
Not only was Bobby Orr incredibly fast, but he was able to make quick moves at high speeds, leaving checkers grasping at air. (Photo: Getty Images)
Orr was revolutionary. Before he arrived in the NHL with the Boston Bruins in 1966, defensemen -- even great ones like Doug Harvey -- didn't race down the ice to lead the attack. Orr changed all that, largely because he was the fastest defenseman (if not the fastest skater) anyone had ever seen.
No one, not even the forwards of his day, could skate like Orr. Not only was he incredibly fast, but he was able to make quick moves at high speeds, leaving checkers grasping at air. If Orr got a half-stride on a defender, he was gone -- no one was going to catch him.
Orr played the game at a different speed than everyone else -- until knee problems caught up with him in the mid-1970s. His last great season (1974-75) ended at age 27, and he was out of hockey by age 30. There has never been anyone like him, and there may never be.
On a team that emphasized speed and skill, no one was faster than Coffey, the only rival to Orr for the title of best-skating defenseman of all-time.
Coffey may actually have been the fastest skater of all time -- even on a team of speedsters like the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, he could leave everyone in the dust. He was at top speed after a step or two, and he often seemed to be playing a different game than everyone else on the ice because he was so fast.
Coffey's speed was most evident during his time with Edmonton, where he was given the freedom to join or lead the rush -- and had Gretzky to get him the puck. His 48 goals in 1985-86 are still a record for defensemen, and his 138 points that season are second to Orr's 139 in '74-75.
Unlike Orr, Coffey was able to stay healthy enough to play two decades in the NHL, allowing him to set the career record for scoring by a defensemen (1,531 points). Even in his later years, he was still a threat every time he took the ice because of his speed, power and acceleration.
Four players have won the Fastest Skater Competition during All-Star Weekend twice. Only one -- Gartner -- was well into his 30s both times he did it.
Gartner used his speed as a weapon from the day he arrived in the NHL in 1979 to the day he retired in 1998. Few players have ever been faster up the wing, fewer still have maintained their elite speed for such a long time. He won the competition in 1993 at age 33, and again three years later, when he was 36 -- and his winning times were the fastest ever posted under the format used from 1992 through 2008.
That speed was one of the big reasons Gartner became one of the most consistent scorers in NHL history. He had 30 or more goals every season from 1979-80 through 1993-94, had his streak broken in the work stoppage-shortened '94-95 season, then posted 35 and 32 goals to give him 17 30-goal seasons, an NHL record.
The Montreal Canadiens of the '50s, '60s and '70s weren't known as the "Flying Frenchmen" for nothing. The Habs' firewagon hockey was a contrast to the more systematic approach taken by other teams -- most notably, the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs.
But even on a team with a lot of speed, Cournoyer stood out. Though he wasn't all that big, he was one of the strongest and most uncatchable skaters in NHL history -- earning him the nickname "The Roadrunner" for his small size (5-foot-7, 175 pounds) and blazing speed.
Cournoyer's career got off to a slow start -- the Canadiens of the mid-1960s were so loaded that they used him as a power-play specialist for a couple of seasons while he learned how to use his speed defensively as well as offensively. But he went on to score 428 goals and win 10 Stanley Cups on the way to the Hall of Fame.
They didn't call Bure "The Russian Rocket" for nothing. He was so fast that if a checker was side-by-side with Bure, he had no chance to catch him. He could beat almost every defenseman by going wide, but if teams tried to cheat on him, he was fast enough and strong enough to jump into the middle and split the defense.
During his time with the Vancouver Canucks in the early 1990s and again with the Florida Panthers late in the decade and into the first years of the new century, Bure was the most dynamic scorer in the NHL. He had back-to-back 60-goal seasons for the Canucks in 1992-93 and '93-94, then scored 58 and 59 goals for the Panthers in 1999-2000 and 2000-01.
Bure was like a 1990s version of Cournoyer -- a smaller player whose burst of speed made him almost impossible to defend. The only thing that could slow Bure was injuries -- knee problems forced him to retire at age 32 after he scored 437 goals in 702 games. He will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November.
Bure and Fedorov were linemates in the Soviet Union (along with Alexander Mogilny) in one of the great junior threesomes of all time, and wound up with the Detroit Red Wings after coming to North America in 1990.
Fedorov didn't have the tremendous burst of speed that Bure did -- but his long, strong stride made him almost impossible to catch, even though he never seemed to be going all that fast. Rather than churning his legs, Fedorov had a fluid style of skating -- but he was every bit as fast as his former linemate. He won two of the first three Fastest Skater competitions during All-Star Weekend.
Fedorov spent nearly two decades in the NHL -- and was as fast on the day he left as he was when he first stepped onto a North American rink.
Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders (2011) and Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers (2012) have won the past two Fastest Skater competitions during All-Star Weekend -- each winning as a rookie -- and Marian Gaborik, Shawn Horcoff and Taylor Hall are among the dozens of players who show the importance of speed in today's game.
But there's speed in a race, and then there's speed in a game. Few players are as fast at game speed as Karlsson, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman last season with the Ottawa Senators while running away with the scoring race among blueliners -- and impressing Orr in the process.
"The kid has wonderful speed. Great, great hockey sense," Orr, an expert on the subject, told the Ottawa Sun late last season. "You get a kid who can skate like that and you let him go."
Karlsson's speed has helped him become an effective two-way player -- he's learned to get back on D well enough to go from minus-30 in 2010-11 to plus-16 last season. Like Orr, he's not only fast, he's able to make quick moves at high speed. At 22, his best -- and fastest -- years are ahead of him.