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How Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon’s stride turned him into the NHL’s hottest player

DNA applies to hockey. No two players skate the same, although the ideal skating stride is taught universally.

Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche’s 22-year-old center and NHL player of the month for November, is an exceptional skater with an extraordinarily powerful stride. If he had a nickname, Two Steps would apply.

That’s all he needs to blow past a defender.

“Fastest skater I’ve ever played with,” linemate Mikko Rantanen said of MacKinnon, who produced 20 points (five goals) in 12 games last month.

MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, went straight from juniors to winning the 2014 Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year at age 18. He’s in his fifth NHL season, but sometimes still needs to be reminded to use his greatest gift.

“I don’t notice it as much as you guys might. I’m just skating like everyone else,” MacKinnon said. “I might be faster than others, but I try to use it as best as I can. I know it’s an advantage I have. It helps myself and my teammates. It creates space for my linemates, whether that’s backing the D or taking them wide or just getting open in the neutral zone. It’s obviously very helpful. It’s a big part of today’s game.”

A typical NHL player needs four to six steps to attain full speed. But MacKinnon is already utilizing his inside edges and gliding with two swift leg swoops while others are still chopping at the ice like a sprinter. He realized his gift between the ages of 8-10, when he would carry the puck end-to-end and have “no problem scoring a lot of goals” against his childhood peers in Dartmouth, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In 2014, MacKinnon raced Canadian short-track speed skater Charles Hamelin, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, from blue line to blue line (50 feet). Despite donning full hockey equipment while Hamelin was wearing a cut-resistant suit, MacKinnon won by a stride.

In hindsight, waking up at 5 a.m. to head to the rink for power-skating lessons before school paid off.

“It’s always been a strength of mine since I was a little kid. I think I kind of picked it up more naturally than others but I did work really hard at it,” MacKinnon said. “My dad, thankfully, took me to power skating before school. A lot of kids didn’t like doing that — and I didn’t even like doing it that much — but my dad kept encouraging me and I’m glad I kept with it.”

In power skating, instructors break down your stride, one leg at a time, and concentrate on leg movement, the bend, and edge work.

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon at ...

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon at the Family Sports Center Nov. 28, 2017.

The secret of MacKinnon’s stride stems from width and back/leg bend. He has used an extraordinarily wide and powerful stride to become one of the NHL’s fastest north-south skaters. The stride mixed with a relatively deep bend makes him sturdier on his skates and harder to knock off the puck when carrying it.

“His first couple steps, he can get to full speed in a hurry and there’s just a handful of guys around the league who can do it the way he does it,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “What it does for us is, he’s always one stride away — every time he touches the puck, he has the ability to break away and make something happen. I think he’s dangerous every time he’s on the ice. He’s so explosive. If you delay for one second in the wrong area, he has the ability to skate right by you and make something happen.”

MacKinnon, who also is a great stick-handler and shooter, works in the off-season with Andy O’Brien, the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ director of sport science and performance. MacKinnon was introduced to O’Brien by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, a fellow Nova Scotian. O’Brien said MacKinnon has all the gifts of an elite skater.

“Physiologically, he’s extremely powerful, has great limb speed and a lever system built for stride length,” O’Brien wrote in an email. “Typically, players have one or two of those characteristics, but it’s very rare to see a player with all three.”

MacKinnon made his first NHL All-Star appearance last season and was convincingly defeated by Edmonton’s Connor McDavid in a skills competition skating race. It was a circular race, and MacKinnon’s wide stride doesn’t compare well to McDavid’s short stride in turns; McDavid is thought to be the world’s best all-around skater.

But McDavid lacks MacKinnon’s power. That power, Avalanche trainer Casey Bond said,  comes from the player’s mental makeup.

“He’s an explosive guy. He’s very, very hardwired,” Bond said. “I know he works hard in the summer to be able to stay in that deep skating position and be powerful from it. A lot of other players can’t sit in that position and create power on a consistent basis like him.”

MacKinnon might have given a McDavid a better race if he would’ve put on the breaks, stopped and then re-started while McDavid was turning. MacKinnon and McDavid are equally dominant in carrying the puck through the neutral zone or accepting a pass in that area to force defenders to back up and not try to hold their blue line. Rantanen said it took some time getting used to playing with MacKinnon, because of his speed.

“With Nate, you try to find him in the neutral zone quickly because he’s not there too long. If he’s in full speed, you want to give it to him because nine times out of 10, he takes it into the O-zone and we have full possession,” Rantanen said. “It’s a big advantage for us, for sure. It’s just fun to have a guy like that in the lineup. He’s burning defensemen all the time, or they’re backing off and turning their hips to try to defend him.”

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