Who is the NHL’s fastest skater? Tracking data might finally provide some answers…

Earlier this week, the Canadian Press reignited an age-old debate by bolding stating “Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon earns praise from peers as NHL’s fastest skater” and went on to list names like Wheeler, Hagelin, Hall and Grabner as the other top speedsters in the league.

What about the pace of Crosby, Ovechkin, Kessel, Tavares, and Karlsson we asked? Or maybe other players we’re not even considering? If only we could somehow measure it for every player so we can just settle this question once and for all.

The common old-school argument however is there is no way to actually measure the seemingly unmeasurable. From there, the debate generally devolves into entrenched opinions based on “what we feel” (doesn’t it always with sports fans?)..and in this case it got us to thinking…

…because of PowerScout Hockey’s unique position as the only company in the world currently with NHL player tracking data on every NHL team (but one), we couldn’t pass up this perfect opportunity to make our first reveal of some insights after having already tracked almost 60 games in 17 NHL buildings and 9 CHL arenas.

This is our early attempt to ‘crack open the door for fans’ and finally provide some quantifiable answers to previously unsolvable questions about who, as we are asking in this case, is truly the league’s most gifted skater.

So what makes the fastest skater as you define it? Top-end speed? Or explosive acceleration? Or a deadly combination of both?

In the graphic below you’ll find the highest speed and acceleration PowerScout has measured so far for each player plotted against each other.

A series of player locations in sequence is grouped together through algorithms and called a trajectory. For this research, each trajectory had to be a minimum of 3.0 m (10 feet) to be included in the data set, as well as have a start speed higher than 5 km/hr.

The measurements below were the reading of his highest speed attained at the end of any one trajectory, and the maximum acceleration achieved at any time during a trajectory. His top speed and best acceleration were not necessarily on the same trajectory.

Our cutting-edge optical tracking system is developed in partnership with Prozone Sports –can be installed in any sized arena in 30 minutes – and measures player and puck locations during game play every 0.1 secondsThis generates 15,000-20,000 location data points per player per game on average.

For each NHL player we had a range of 1-10 games of tracking data, using games spanning across the last four seasons. We selected a manageable number of players to plot (=24) and tried to get one respected speedster per team.  For your interest, we have also included Connor McDavid from one of his playoff games we tracked last year. The data set used here included 39 games.

Of course we could always use more data to make this evaluation a little more robust, but as the first attempt ever to evaluate who really is the league’s fastest skater, we finally have some tangible results to digest… and the winners are…

Hagelin has the fastest top-end speed at 37.1 km/hr (23.0 mph), with a little gap to MacKinnon and Kessel tied for second at 36.3 km/hr, before a larger grouping of players at 36.0 km/hr.

Ovechkin clearly is a step above his peers with the most explosive acceleration at 9.5 m/s2 (31.2 ft/s2), with Karlsson also showing he belongs in Ovie’s elite company at an impressive 8.9 km/hr2.

And in our mind the case can be made Ovechkin, Karlsson and Hall/Hagelin in that order look to be the best overall combination of both…. for now.  These are very preliminary results using a small sample size with only select players, but we’re excited at the analysis we’re doing at PowerScout to try and answer these types of questions across all aspects of hockey.

As Nathan MacKinnion astutely responded to the CP piece with “but what about when I have the puck?”, this is a question we’ve also looked at in the tracking data, and maybe something we’ll release here in the future.

So do you agree with the findings? Now who do you think is the fastest skater? It looks to us like this kind of tracking data analysis might just fuel decades more of fiery debate, and maybe not necessarily settle anything at all…. yet.


Follow us on Twitter @PowerScout_NHL  to receive future NHL tracking data insights as we release them. 

Speed vs Acceleration graphic