Tuesday, August 16, 2011

2011 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating: Season Preview

I didn't write a lot about this when it was announced a month or two ago because everyone else was covering it. I've been thinking a lot about the upcoming Grand Prix season and the more I think about it, I realize how unfortunate it is for the skaters that the fields were cut from 12 to 10 in singles and 10-8 in Ice Dance. The Grand Prix is a great debut for rising senior skaters and many promising young athletes will not be given the chance to compete on the world stage. However, the smaller fields mean that each event is chock full of contenders. There are no throwaways in these events and even the best in the world will be fighting to make that podium. Here is a sneak peak at each event, including the key match-ups. I'll make more concrete predictions closer to the start of the events when the fields are finalized after TBD slots are filled and skaters withdraw, as they always do.

Skate America (Oct 21-23)
Ladies: Based on last season's results, this should be a battle between Alissa Czisny and Carolina Kostner, but because it is the first event of the year, gold will likely go to whomever is the least rusty from the off-season. Ksenia Makarova ended the 2010-2011 season with a 7th place finish at Worlds and she could snatch a medal if her new Marilyn Monroe freeskate is successful. Laura Lepisto was injured last season but she took the bronze at the 2010 Worlds and is always a threat. You can never count out the Japanese women and this may be Haruka Imai's chance to medal if she is more prepared than the favorites. The US has one host slot to give out and I predict it could go to Alexe Gilles if she shows that her coaching change has caused a big enough improvement over last season.
Men: The headliner of this event is sure to be 2010 Olympic Champion Evan Lysacek in his first competition since Vancouver. But will he show up, and if so, what kind of shape will he be in? World silver medalist Takahiko Kozuka seems to be the front-runner, unless of course Lysacek is back in top form. Florent Amodio will also challenge for the podium, especially if he shows us that quad he's been promising. Michal Brezina is another who could land on the podium along with Ricky Dornbush the young American who made an impressive top-10 debut at 2011 Worlds.
Pairs: Reigning World Champs Savchenko & Szolkowy should have no trouble winning here, but the first event of the season is known to be tricky as most athletes aren't in top shape yet. Zhang & Zhang of China are back after a full season off so it will be interesting to see what they look like after all that time out of the spotlight. Bazarova & Larionov should easily make the podium, especially if Vera has been working on her technical elements in the off-season. Her jumping ability has held them back in the past. Reigning champions Moore-Towers & Moscovitch aim to show that last season's success on the Grand Prix was not a fluke. Young Americans Marley & Brubaker make their Grand Prix debut and are hungry to show international judges that they are the real deal. US Figure Skating has one host pick open and I am 99% sure it will go to the new team of Denney & Coughlin after their recent success at home competitions. If they perform as they did this summer and continue to improve, they could snag a medal here. Or, the US could go another way and decide to give rising seniors Cain & Reagan a shot at a second Grand Prix.
Dance: This is obviously World Champion Davis & White's event. They won't be challenged until they meet Virtue & Moir in the Final. The battle here will really be for the rest of the podium. Pechalat & Bourzat should easily take the silver, especially if they are as hungry as I suspect after a disappointing fall left them off the World podium. Monnko & Khaliavin make their senior debut after impressive junior careers. The new US team of Hubbell & Donohue will also make their Grand Prix debut here after also competing at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September. The US has one spot to award and I believe it will go to the newly formed team of Chock & Bates. This team could have future success but it takes a while to build synergy in a dance team and they shouldn't expect to medal outright. Rising seniors Lichtman & Copely could also receive the host pick as a second assignment.

Skate Canada (Oct 28-30)
Ladies: This is an interesting field of ladies because about 6 of the 10 are contenders for Gold but there is no front runner. Of the three Americans, Ashley Wagner, Mirai Nagasu, and Rachael Flatt, neither has ever won a Grand Prix but all have medaled. Flatt has had arguably the most success, though her programs and training plans for the upcoming season have been quite hush-hush so I wouldn't be surprised to see her withdraw. Wagner beat Nagasu in a recent summer competition so that could be a predictor of things to come. Alena Leonova ended last season on a very high note and she could come on very strong to medal and even win this event. Akiko Suzuki had a great 2010 Grand Prix racking up two silvers so she is a contender as well. Perhaps the biggest threat is little Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, the 2011 World Junior Silver medalist. She has arguably the highest technical content of all these ladies so if she can avoid feeling the pressure of a senior debut, she well may win it. Canada will likely add Myrianne Samson to the field for their host pick as she was not assigned to any other events.
Men: I have to believe that Patrick Chan will come back strong after winning Worlds and take the Gold here in his home country. Daisuke Takahashi will be a wild card this season. Can he come back strong after a disappointing World Championships or is he past his prime? He is a personal favorite of mine so I really hope he can make a comeback. Adam Rippon also seems likely to make the podium assuming that Jason Dungjen & Yuka Sato have the same effect on him that they have on their other new pupils. He could even take the silver if Takahashi struggles. Youngster Ross Miner must raise the bar from his mediocre 2010 GP season after being called upon to represent the US at Worlds and doing a fine job at that. He'll certainly be held to a higher standard this season. Javier Fernandez was impressive in the 2010-2011 season and improved steadily. If he ups his artistry to meet his fantastic quad this could be a breakout year for him.
Pairs: Experience versus technical ability will clash at this event as reigning World silver medalists Voloshozar & Trankov go up against  youngsters Sui & Han. Both teams should be on the podium barring any major disasters. Home team Duhamel & Radford could round out the podium if they start this season the same way they ended last with an impressive 7th at Worlds in a debut season. They have some great skills if they can improve their artistry and on-ice connection. Takahashi & Tran found success on the 2010 GP but I'm not impressed by them and unless they've improved greatly, I don't see them making this podium. Canada's Lawrence & Swiegers are also a fine team and though they're pleasant to watch, I don't see them as World class.
Dance: Like Davis & White at Skate America, this event is Virtue & Moir's to lose. They won't have a true challenge until they meet Davis & White at the Grand Prix Final. Pechalt & Bourzat and Weaver & Poje, now training mates, will battle for 2nd at this event. Both are fairly well matched with the French having the edge in the past, though I've been hearing great things about the improvements made by Weaver & Poje in the off-season. Riazanova & Tkachenko of Russia have also been steadily climbing and could be a threat if the French or the Canadians have problems. Canada's host pick will likely go to Paul & Islam who could easily medal.

Cup of China (Nov 4-6)
Ladies: 2010 World bronze medalist Carolina Kostner headlines this event, though she'll face very tough competition. Reigning Junior World champion and Russian wonder-baby Adelina Sotnikova makes her Senior GP debut along with American Christina Gao. Sotnikova vs fellow Russian Ksenia Makarova will be an interesting battle for the top spot at home, as will Gao vs Mirai Nagasu for supremacy in the US. Let's not forget Japan's Kanako Murakami who won a gold and a bronze in her senior GP debut last season and now has that experience under her belt.
Men: This event features at least 3 Men who are trying to get out of a funk from last season. Nobunari Oda, Brian Joubert, and Jeremy Abbott all had disappointing 2010-2011 but any of the 3 could win this event if they can rediscover the spark they had in previous seasons. Of all the men competing, Artur Gachinski ended last season with the biggest bang, winning bronze at Worlds. If the momentum continues, he could win here, but not if Oda, Abbott, or Joubert are at the top of their game. Yazuru Hanyu of Japan is a youngster coming up the ranks who made a big splash with a silver at 2011 Four Continents and he could be a threat to win here too. American Ricky Dornbush will be in his 2nd senior Grand Prix event here (and of the season) which could give him a leg up on the competitors.
Pairs: With the withdrawal of Pang & Tong from the entire Grand Prix season, Kavaguti & Smirnov seem poised to take gold here.We'll also have to wait and see which team will replace Pang & Tong because that team could factor in to the medals. Zhang & Zhang are huge wild cards because they are Olympic medalists from 2006 but they've never returned to that top form since then and we haven't seen them perform in over a year. Americans Evora & Ladwig and Canadians Moore-Towers & Moscovitch seem likely to round out the podium as they've each shown signs of greatness, though each team has also been known to crack under pressure. However, if Sui & Han replace Pang & Tong or take China's TBD slot they are almost guaranteed a medal so the Americans & Canadians will really have to battle for that bronze. As of 8/16 Sui & Han have been added to the Cup of China roster and they'll likely take the silver.
Dance: If it were last season this time, I'd have said Bobrova & Soloviev would win this event, but the Shibutani siblings passed them at Worlds to take bronze and if they remain in that top shape, the young Americans will likely win. Americans Lichtman & Copely and Russians Monko & Khaliavin are both moving up from the junior circuit where they both medaled at Worlds last year and if either makes the senior debut that the Shibutanis made last season, they'll medal.

NHK Trophy (Nov 11-13)
Ladies: This will be an interesting field because about half of the ladies make their season's debut while the other half will have already skated in one event. We have a lot of wild cards here and no clear favorites. Of the two home picks, Mao Asada has the best international record though she struggled all last season, while Akiko Suzuki had a great 2010 Grand Prix but failed to make the World team. Kiira Korpi and Cynthia Phaneuf have both shown us they can be great at times, but those strokes of brilliance have been few and far between. Russia's Alena Leonova made a huge jump in the standings at the 2011 Worlds to finish fourth so she has perhaps the best momentum going in. Now that she has senior international experience, American Agnes Zawadzki has the goods to win her first senior medal. After a coaching change to the renown John Nicks, Ashley Wagner could easily medal if she keeps her nerves in check and can put up a decent short program to match her usually fantastic longs. My money is on Suzuki, Leonova, and Zawadzki for the podium, not necessarily in that order.
Men: If he competes the way he did last season, I see Takahiko Kozuka winning this event, while Daisuke Takahashi will likely use the home crowd's energy to take silver. I don't know that we've ever seem him perfect, but Tomas Verner is usually good enough to eek out a medal. But he'll be challenged by the American squad of Mahbanoozadeh, Miner, and Mroz, two of which have senior Grand Prix medals in their collections.
Pairs: Savchenko & Szolkowy should rack up another gold here, though they'll face a challenge from Kavaguti & Smirnov who will likely take the silver. I see a 3-way battle for bronze, and possibly a 4-way depending on who replaces Pang & Tong. Takahashi & Tran and Iliushechkina & Maisuradze both had decent 2010 Grand Prix seasons with the later winning Skate Canada and making the final. Both tapered off toward the end of the season but could win a medal here if they show up strong. Americans Castelli & Shnapir could be a dark horse because they have some flashy, high-scoring elements if they could actually hit them all in the same competition.
Dance: Of the 4 times they faced one another last season, the Shibutanis came out on top 3 times while Weaver & Poje only beat the young siblings once, and that was the first event of the 2010 season. The outcome will depend on preparation as either could come out on top though I'll put my bets on the Americans. Russian favorites Ilinykkh & Katsalapov were very successful as juniors but have yet to make their mark as seniors. A medal here could be huge for them. Paul & Islam, known as Virtue & Moir 2.0 will try to escape the shadow of their countrymen and stand on their own feet to win their first senior international medal, though they debuted on the 2010 circuit. Germans Zhiganshina & Gazsi and Americans Kriengkrairut & Giuletti-Schmitt have also been steadily climbing and could make a strong showing.

Trophee Eric Bompard (Nov 18-20)
Ladies: Of all the ladies competing, Alissa Czisny, Laura Lepisto, and Carolina Kostner have the most experience, with the later two having World medals. If she performs the way she did most of last season, my money is on Czisny for sure. Lepisto is a lovely skater but she rarely wins medals on her own, as she tends to capitalize on others' mistakes. Kanako Murakami who won a bronze at the 2010 GPF in her senior debut could could upset the favorites. Russia's young Elizaveta Tuktamisheva will already have one senior GP under her belt at this point and will be at the top of field in terms of technique, though the maturity and artistry of the older ladies could keep her out of the medals.
Men: Many are touting this as THE event of the Grand Prix season with the greatest battle likely between reigning World champ Chan and reigning Olympic champ Lysacek. Many speculate that Lysacek will withdraw if he is not ready to compete, but practice reports state that he is quickly returning to Olympic shape. Nobu Oda has a huge technical arsenal, but he often makes silly mistakes and his artistry is nowhere close to that of Chan or Lysacek. If he puts that quad in, Adam Rippon could be a huge factor as he scores high on components and normally gets great levels and GOE's on his technical elements. Brian Joubert is a past World champ, though he hasn't looked like it recently and I don't see him factoring in for Gold. Michal Brezina and Florent Amodio have both shown they can pull points out of nowhere, but they'll have to do more than their usual fluff routines to medal at this event. Regardless of what happens, men who are used to medaling will have to fight even for 5th or 6th, which is one of the side effects of the new Grand Prix redesign.
Pairs: After their amazing debut at the 2010 Worlds, this seems to be Voloshozar & Trankov's to lose. The only team even close to them is Bazarova & Larionov, also of Russia, but their technique simply is not at the same level. Evora & Ladwig and Duhamel & Radford will likely battle for the bronze, but if both teams skate clean, I'd give the edge to Evora & Ladwig based on experience and connection. Youngsters Stolbova & Klimov make their senior debut and could also factor into the medals if they can come on as strong as Sui & Han did last season.
Dance: I feel 95% confident in predicting this podium. Virtue & Moir will win, followed by Pechalat & Bourzat and finally Ilinykh & Katsalapov. Both the French & Russian teams made coaching changes that could effect their performance in either a good or a bad way. Cappellini & Lanotte of Italy are a pretty team, but they can't seem to crack that top tier of ice dance.

Rostelecom Cup (Dec 8-11)
Ladies: Can Mao Asada finally make a comeback and win? Will the Russian wonder-baby Adelina Sotnikova continue on her winning streak and upset her? Can Alena Leonova overtake the youngster to become the top woman in Russia? Which of the three Americans, Flatt, Gao, and Zawadzki will step up and take a medal? Or will Finland's Kiira Korpi pull out a surprise win as she did last season at the final GP event? There is a lot riding on this event both nationally and internationally. If Asada can't come out strong this season, the Japanese youngsters will likely pass her by the 2014 games. The same is true for Alena Leonova in Russia. If she can't hold off Sotnikova here at home, in her senior debut, she'll prove that she'll be all but irrelevant by Sochi. In the US, Zawadzki & Gao seem poised to take over as the top ladies, but its just a matter of when they'll strike and who will come out on top. And last but not least, how will a move and a coaching change effect Rachael Flatt and will she even compete at all? Any of these women should be threats to make the Final so I highly doubt we'll know who is competing until this event is finished.
Men: If he can get to the level he was at in 2009, Jeremy Abbot has a good shot at winning this event, though Artur Gachinski will have the home crowd on his side. Michal Brezina is always a threat, as is Tomas Verner. We can't forget that Brandon Mroz won two Grand Prix medals last season and he seems to peak early in the season so he's certainly a factor. Yazuru Hanyu & Javier Fernandez made huge impressions last season and it could be a breakout year for either. And last but not least, the question weighing on everybody's mind, will Plushenko compete in Russia's TBD slot and declare once and for all that he is still relevant in the sport?
Pairs: Savchenko & Szolkowy will meet Kavaguti & Smirnov here for the 2nd time this season, though I expect the Germans to come out on top again. I saw a short practice clip recently and they seem to be in top shape. Bronze is truly open to anyone, though it may depend on who Russia selects for their host pick. Hausch & Wende and Berton & Hotarek, though not top tier pairs, are solid enough that either could pick up a medal. Then again 3 young teams, Gerboldt & Enbert, Cain & Reagan, and Jones & Gaskell have just as much of a chance to medal if they can go clean in both programs, though I'd give the edge to Gerboldt & Enbert who were impressive at Europeans last season.
Dance: Davis & White will not be challenged in this event and it will merely be a chance for them to tweak and perfect their programs before the Final. In the same respect, Weaver & Poje likely won't be challenged for the silver unless Bobrova & Soloviev have done a lot of work in the off-season. Russia's Riazanova & Tkachenko were alternates for the final last season and as I hear they're improving steadily, they could even pass Bobrova & Soloviev. I suspect Russia will add one of their young rising senior teams as the host pick.

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