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The Western Conference final is a battle of fast, faster and fastest — ever.

Between Avalanche superstars Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon and electrifying Oilers captain Connor McDavid, there won’t be a lack of speed in this series.

McDavid is on another level, though.

“He’s the best player in the world,” MacKinnon said earlier this season.

McDavid is having an unreal postseason, co-leading the scoring race with teammate Leon Draisaitl with 26 points in 12 games.

“It’s quite a spectacle (what) Connor’s doing out there,” NHL legend Mike Gartner said.

And though McDavid has taken his overall game to new heights during the playoffs with his defensive and physical play, his blazing speed is still his calling card.

The Athletic enlisted the help of five Hockey Hall of Fame players — five of the fastest and smoothest striders to ever lace them up — to dish on what makes No. 97’s skating a cut above.

Note: Responses were edited for clarity.


Who is the fastest skater you’ve ever seen?

Paul Coffey: With or without the puck? There are a lot of guys that can go 90 (miles per hour) without getting the puck on their stick. Connor to date without a doubt.

Mike Modano: At this point, Connor may be one of them. MacKinnon can do things at high speeds. Back in our day, (Pavel) Bure was that guy who had that straightaway speed. Even (Sergei) Fedorov could get a little separation.

What sets MacKinnon and McDavid apart is that they don’t slow down when they get the puck. A lot of guys are great skaters, and they can move up and down. But you throw the puck in the mix, and they come down a couple gears. For those two guys, you can tell there’s no slowdown once the puck gets on their stick.

Mike Gartner: I’ve seen some great skaters. I’ve played with Paul Coffey and against Paul for years. Coff was a graceful skater. I played with Mark Messier in New York and with Team Canada. He was a powerful skater. Both were extremely fast. Connor’s about the fastest guy I’ve seen, though. He really is.

I’ve watched him as a young guy growing up. I’ve watched him develop and work out with Gary Roberts; he has a facility in one of our hockey arenas. I see Connor working out. I see the work that he puts in. As he’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten faster as well.

Paul Kariya: With the puck, I don’t think anyone has skated faster than Connor McDavid. It’s funny when I started in Anaheim, Tim Army was our assistant coach, and he was a huge Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr fan. He sent me multiple videotapes — in fact, a VHS (laughs) — of all of Bobby Orr’s points in his career. I would say watching those tapes and seeing Bobby Orr play, in comparison to the players he was playing, he might have been faster than anyone else in his era.

Obviously, with technology, with training, the skates, that has changed. But if you actually look at how fast Bobby Orr was to the average skater in his time versus how fast Connor McDavid is to the skaters now, that might be the only guy who you could put up there.

Today’s game is faster than it’s ever been. The players are faster than they’ve ever been. And Connor McDavid is the fastest of that group.

Scott Niedermayer: Yeah, (it’s) McDavid.

Do you recall the first time you saw McDavid skate? What were your impressions?

Gartner: I saw him play as a youngster. I coached my son’s bantam team in Richmond Hill and we used to play against the York-Simcoe Express.

We get to the rink in Aurora about an hour before the game. I’m watching the practice that’s going on out there. The practice happens to be the York-Simcoe team a year younger than our guys. So they’re 14 years old. Out of the corner of my eye, I see this kid practising. I’m watching for a couple minutes and I just interrupt the conversation I’m having.

I said, “Have you seen this kid out here? Who is that kid?” (My assistant coach) looks over and says, “Oh, that’s Connor McDavid.” I said, “Wow. These kids are a year younger, right? He could play in our team and be the best player right now.” Then I learned he was actually playing a year up already, so he was two years younger than our guys.

Coffey: I saw him skate as a young kid with the Marlies (AAA minor hockey team in Toronto). I stepped on the ice (with him) four years ago when I first started doing some work with the Oilers (in player development).

That’s the one thing people don’t understand when you watch these coaches at practice. You have to know the drills you’re doing, and you have to know where to stand or you will get run over. I was where I shouldn’t be, but I was quick enough and steady enough on my skates to back up and get out of the way. He just flew by me and said, “Heads up.”

It was pretty cool.

Modano: It wasn’t until he got into the NHL. I didn’t watch him much in junior. That first year in Edmonton, I thought, “This kid is going to be a treat for a long time.”

The first thing that popped into my head was his ability to not alter his speed with the puck. That’s what makes it hard for people to check him and keep tabs on him. It was jaw-dropping for me. I knew this guy was on a whole other level than everybody else. They can’t catch up to him.

His ability to make some moves at full speed, get in and out of traffic, decent shot, great and fast hands. He had it all going.

Niedermayer: They were in playing Anaheim. I was at the game. Obviously, I’d seen him on TV prior to that, but first impression was pretty much the same one I have now. I mean he moves differently than anyone else. (Laughs) It’s just that simple.

Kariya: A few people have made the analogy that he’s like a video game player. It’s not just his breakaway speed. It’s his lateral movement, his change of direction, change of pace and his ability to create space from guys who are you trying to check him. Whether he’s stopping or accelerating or changing direction, he just creates so much space with a speed with his skating, it’s just incredible to watch.

If you were playing a video game, you would want Connor McDavid as your guy to move around. It’s really just something that the game has never seen.

Gartner: You could see it even as a young player. He just stood out that much. His skill level and his skating was just exceptional even at a young age. I’ve watched him develop over the years. It’s more than skating. His puck skills are at such a high level.

Coffey: It’s hard to believe, but he’s going to get faster.

(Sergei Belski / USA Today)

What sets McDavid apart as a skater?

Gartner: The first four strides, which are the most important strides, I don’t think anyone has ever been faster. There may have been players in the past — a couple of the players that I mentioned — that were as fast as Connor. But one of the separators is that the puck slows us all down. It’s difficult to skate full speed with the puck on your stick. You can push it ahead of you and go chase it a little bit.

We’re pros; we carry it well. But it does slow you down a little bit. With Connor, it does not seem to slow him down. He’s got a wide stance. He’s hard to knock off the puck. He’s got great balance as a skater. He’s got a great, full stride. It’s not a choppy stride; it’s full and it’s powerful. There are a lot of good, really strong technical things that he does as well.

Modano: It’s those first half dozen kicks that he gets going. He gets a couple crossovers and then he’s gone. He’s hopping to the left, hopping to the right, and then he has the pull-away speed.

He seems to time it, too, where he swoops in and everybody looks a little slower. He has a knack for coming in at 100 miles an hour, picking pucks up, turning them over and then he’s gone. Everybody’s flatfooted and wondering what just happened. He has a good feel of the timing and getting in and out of traffic. If he’s out there wheeling, then you’re a deer in the headlights.

Niedermayer: He uses crossovers to accelerate, which is a little bit different than guys skated 20, 30 years ago. It might have a little bit to do with the equipment, the skates. But he definitely found a way to use the modern equipment and get the most out of it. And I think a lot of crossovers and using a lot of energy to accelerate out of those turns. Because he’s at top speed before you can finish saying it.

Coffey: Anybody can whip around the ice. Anybody can forecheck or backcheck hard. You put that little, black thing on your stick and it’s different. Everything just seems to slow down for him.

Almost every goal that Connor McDavid scores is in the highlight reel. But see how it developed before or see what he did the shift before to get a loose puck.

You know the other thing he doesn’t get any credit for? He backchecks. He works. You watch him in practice whenever Jay (Woodcroft) blows the whistle for two laps around. Who do you think is leading? Him! He’s the hardest worker.

Kariya: His greatest attribute as a skater is how well he skates with the puck. In broad terms, like in the fastest skater competition, I think guys have beaten him.

That’s not a game. Who cares how fast you can skate around the rink without a puck? What matters is how fast you can skate in the game, in a game situation with the puck. And that’s where he’s head and shoulders above everyone else.

Part of that is the way he’s not just fast in a straight line. He’s fast side to side, stopping, starting, cutting. It just seems like once he makes a move, his ability to accelerate out of that move is beyond anyone else. If you were trying to create the perfect hockey player, that’s the type of speed you’d want.

Coffey: When people ask me, “What made you a great skater?” Well, a lot of it is god-given talent. Let’s not kid ourselves. Connor has a god-given ability with his balance and everything. Sure, he roller skated as a kid and did all his work, but so did everybody else.

You’ve got to have god-given talent. He has that. But you combine that with incredible work ethic, that’s a winner. You watch him in optional skates or in the bowels of the rink doing his plyometrics and doing his warmups. Nobody else is doing it like that.

Could you beat him in a race in your prime?

Coffey: Absolutely! I’m only kidding. (Laughs.) Who knows? I guess the answer everyone should be saying is no, but I definitely would love to have the opportunity. But I really would love the opportunity to play with him. Making that head-man pass, being able to read when he moves low and hitting him with a pass at full stride — that would have been a lot of fun.

I can’t skate in the modern skates. Connor’s skates are modern but old school because they’re soft in certain areas where you can still roll your ankle and turn. A lot of the skates now, you can’t. That’s why everybody skates straight up and down.

Modano: (Laughs.) I don’t know. I think he might get me.

Gartner: I was going to say probably not, but I’m 62 right now. (Laughs.) When I did all those competitions (at the All-Star Game) later in my career, when I set that record that stood for 20 years, I was 36 years old when I did that. So, I don’t really know if I was faster when I was 22. I assume I was, but I really don’t know.

Kariya and Niedermayer: No.

What is your favourite McDavid highlight?

Coffey: We were in Edmonton for Kevin’s (Lowe) retirement. The box we were in is right on that blue line. I saw the puck go out. He got it around the penalty box, made a bit of a turn, took a look left and right, attacked and beat four guys and scored. That was as good as it got. Are there other plays that are as good? The no-look on Morgan Rielly a couple years ago; I was there for that one, too.

Gartner: It’s the types of moves he pulls on defencemen — and makes really good defencemen look bad. That’s tough to do. There are probably half a dozen defencemen that are going, “Boy, I hope they don’t keep showing that clip.” It’s mostly those types of moves.

He has moves coming out of the corner. He can blow by somebody wide. But it’s the one where you actually go through a defenceman, those are the ridiculous goals that just make guys look bad. And these aren’t pylons that Connor’s going around. These are good defencemen.

Niedermayer: Not only is he quick, but he can change directions so quick as well. That’s not really a highlight — but it creates a lot of his highlights.

It’s one thing for a defender to try and manage the speed. But all of a sudden, if he’s going a different direction — and then going that fast before and after. You really have a problem. I think that’s what really creates a lot of the challenge to defend him and his highlights, when he has success. He’s quick and he changes directions just as quickly.

Modano: Oh, man. They all seem to be very similar in the sense everybody gets the puck lost in their feet, and he keeps his speed and he goes around them or in between the defencemen.

There was the one recently in Toronto (against Rielly). Then there was the one this year where he went back out in the neutral zone and regrouped and then came in (against the Rangers). He had a big celebration after that one. He tends to have a better celebration when he knows he did something that’s pretty special.

Kariya: It was against the Rangers when he just went through the whole team. (He) beat three guys and then he embarrassed the goalie. I mean, he’s playing against NHL players — and it looked like he was playing against guys in a pickup league.

Coffey: These are NHL players that he’s beating. He’s not beating beer-league players on a Saturday night. But that’s what good players do. It doesn’t matter the era or the speed (of the game); good players make great plays.

What I love about Connor is he just says, “That’s what I’m paid to do.” He’s going to continue to do that until he can’t.

(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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