MacKinnon’s Speed Isn’t What Makes Him Special

We all know that Nathan MacKinnon is fast.

Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune just described the 18-year old as, “arguably the fastest skater in the NHL”. I agree with Russo and likely so to does Jared Spurgeon…and Ryan Suter, and for that matter, Thomas Hickey and Matt Donovan, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban and Francis Bouillon

The kid is just flat-out explosive. Much in the same way that Pavel Bure was explosive, quite possibly even more so.

But speed alone, isn’t what makes Nathan MacKinnon special. In fact, there are many other, similarly explosive players in the league.

Viktor Stalberg is fast. So too are Michael Grabner, Mason Raymond, Erik Cole, and Carl Hagelin. These are all established NHL speed demons who are the objects of envy to many GMs around the league. But they’re not Nathan MacKinnon.

Nathan MacKinnon
Nathan MacKinnon possesses an array of skills, in addition to his world-class skating ability. (Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports)

As the 2014 Playoffs serve as backdrop to his coming out party, the conversation surrounding MacKinnon has largely been focused on his world-class skating ability. However, it’s not just his speed that makes him special, it’s the following:

His Hands Can Keep Up With His Legs

Yes, speed kills, but if a player’s hands can’t keep up, their options become limited very quickly. You often see fast players use their speed in a straight line, north-south. They simply push the puck ahead of them and use their great wheels to keep it out of their opponent’s reach. However, penetrating the middle of the ice or changing direction with the puck becomes difficult at such high speeds.

For MacKinnon though, his insanely quick legs are met with insanely quick hands, allowing him to maintain control of the puck at top speed, even while changing direction and shooting. (Technically speaking, faster skaters don’t necessarily have quicker legs, but rather, more power. In practical terms, greater distance traveled per skating stride.)

However, MacKinnon isn’t just a north-south player. His stickhandling proficiency allows him to move laterally at top speed: accelerating north-south then suddenly shifting east-west, while in full control of the puck. In Game 2 against the Wild, MacKinnon showcased his east-west agility, freeing himself from Mikko Koivu. He followed with a north-south attack into the offensive zone, continued by another east-west maneuver to get around Jared Spurgeon, before finishing with a laser wristshot to beat Ilya Bryzgalov.

MacKinnon possesses uncommonly quick hands and a quick release, all while moving at a nearly unmatched top speed. And how about that release? What good is speed if a player has to  slow down before shooting? More on this later.

He Understands Time and Space

All great players understand the concept of time and space: Time equals space, space equals time, and speed is how both are created. MacKinnon has demonstrated his ability to utilize speed to create time and space for himself and more importantly, his teammates.

Speed, by itself, can be contained. For example, a fast but one-dimensional player is likely to use their speed to the outside and hope they’re fast enough to beat the defenseman wide, yet still have the real estate to make a play at the net. This is a nearly impossible task for any forward, given the incredible mobility of today’s NHL defenseman. In the rare case a forward is able to beat a defenseman to the outside, a gap-adjustment by the defenseman will ensure that it won’t happen again any time soon.

What is most valuable isn’t speed but rather the threat of speed, with an awareness of time and space and the skill-set to exploit it.

In the same game against the Wild, MacKinnon utilized the time and space he created. The threat of MacKinnon’s speed pushes the Wild defenseman (Suter) back further than he would normally be, if say, Cody McLeod was on the rush. (I’m a huge McLeod fan, by the way.) Note, this adjustment was made after MacKinnon’s goal earlier in the game (above). Speed is used to influence Suter’s gap, creating time and space. MacKinnon, aware of the time and space being given to him, continues towards the net. However, instead of attempting to go wide on Suter (as he had done with Spurgeon), he leaves the puck in the space he created, for an incoming Gabriel Landeskog who finds himself a Grade-A shooting opportunity, just outside the hash marks.

This is an example of a fast player utilizing his speed to influence time and space. This awareness, with the ability to execute, makes MacKinnon special.

He Goes to High-Traffic Areas

Unique to MacKinnon’s game is his combination of speed, strength, and courage. There are lots of fast players who wither in the corners and avoid the high-traffic areas. They tend to keep to the perimeter and prefer to skate their way out of danger. MacKinnon doesn’t shy away from these areas – he’ll play along the boards and penetrate the front of the net, while absorbing contact in order to make the right play.

In this terrific shift against Montreal, MacKinnon avoids contact because of his quickness, but in doing so, touches the puck in every high-traffic area in the offensive zone; behind the net, in the low slot, in the high slot, in the corners, and along the boards. The play finishes with MacKinnon finding a loose puck just outside the crease, amidst three Montreal defensemen, and patiently holding it to beat a sprawled Carey Price.

This courage should prove to be an asset in the playoffs when the availability of open ice is more limited.

He Has a Deceptive Release

Avalanche color commentator Peter McNab made an interesting observation regarding Mackinnon’s wrist shot. He likened it to the motion of a slingshot as Mackinnon typically brings the puck far behind him before slinging it forward. He contrasted Mackinnon’s unique release with that of Joe Sakic, who avoided bringing the puck behind him, opting instead for a quick snap with little to no wind up. Sakic had success with a quick release but Mackinnon’s is centered more around deception.

He’s proven he can beat an NHL goaltender on the rush even while shooting from distances that aren’t normally threatening. The difficulty for the goaltender lies in their inability to track the puck off his stick, largely due to the speed at which he’s moving upon release.

He’s beaten Ryan Miller off the rush and Josh Harding from a standstill, a testament to his underrated shooting ability.

He also uses an unusually long stick, which allows him to change his shooting angle and point of release in an instant, which adds further tracking difficulty for goalies.

Earlier this year, against San Jose, MacKinnnon, was in full flight down the right wing and placed a perfect shot off of the far post, beating Alex Stalock. Stalock was positioned appropriately at the top of his crease, knowing MacKinnon didn’t have an immediate pass option. He was ready for the shot but appeared to have difficulty tracking MacKinnon’s sneaky release.

MacKinnon’s skating ability is elite. However, he shouldn’t be typecast as just a great skater, as he possesses an array of attributes that will allow him to excel in the NHL for decades to come.

And let’s not forget, he’s only 18.