1) Mao Asada (JPN)
2) Ashley Wagner (USA)
3) Kanako Murakami (JPN)
I've loved Mao Asada (JPN) ever since she was a pre-teen jumping bean, but I think she's even better now in the Renaissance of her career. She may not be as technically proficient, but she's skating with the maturity of a true artist. I think that losing the Olympic Gold hurt her more than we can ever know and she is using that emotion to improve her performance quality. I grieve for her over the recent loss of her mother and that is the x-factor that certainly will affect her skating the rest of the season, though exactly how is an uncertainty. I think she'll take all of those feelings and put them into her programs, ultimately propelling her to a win.
Ashley Wagner (USA) is the new golden girl of the US and I think that new-found confidence is going to set her up for a nice run as a contender internationally. She beat Mao last year at at NHK 2010 and if she has it in her to do it again, this is as good a time as any. She is exquisitely trained and packaged this season and I believe she will go clean, but in my opinion that is not enough if Mao also skates clean. She's been talking up a triple-triple combination, even in the short, and I'd like to hope she'll try it here to give it a test run before Worlds. A medal here would do wonders for her confidence and give her more international credibility that could help her scores and give her the benefit of the doubt at Worlds.
Kanako Murakami (JPN) is still the little diva that burst onto the scene last year, she's just trying to find herself. Her programs are much more lyrical and mature this season; I really appreciate that she's taking a step in that direction. Her jumps were an issue on the grand prix, particularly pops, which is a sign of lack of focus and confidence. I'm not worried about her, she's just in a sophomore slump, and I think a great performance and potentially a medal here will be a way to come out of that smelling like a rose.
The Japanese contingent is strong as always and Haruka Imai (JPN) has the potential to factor in. She's training with Sato and Dungjen and her skating reminds me of Yuka a lot. She has a beautiful, soft, elegant quality about her skating but she's a fragile skater and we don't know what kind of mindset she'll show up in. She trains in Detroit so travel and time changes won't affect her like it will the other Japanese ladies.
I like Agnes Zawadzki (USA) but I feel she is a little lost. Last season she had so much confidence, even when things weren't going well. This was an up and down season for her and I think she's just going through some growing pains of switching coaches and trying to find herself artistically. Actually, she reminds me of Kanako a lot this season. Aesthetically, I think her new look with the dark hair and makeup is very harsh. Is she trying to make herself look older? That's fine but if she softened up her look, I think it could help her artistically.
I can't even believe we are talking about Caroline Zhang (USA) as a contender at a major international but I'm happy to do it. If everybody skates clean, she still has a ways to go to make the podium. However, it's not an overly strong field and if she goes clean and others falter, she could find herself taking home some hardware. Either way, getting the bid to this event is a confidence builder and that's what she needs. The jumps still need some work, particularly in terms of height, but she's on the way. Now that skaters are seeming to have longer careers and/or peaking later in life, you can't count her out.
Cynthia Phaneuf (CAN) is certainly gritting her teeth after losing out on the National title. She breaks my heart because she's so dramatic and intense on the ice, that's my kind of skater, but she can't get out of her own head. She pops jumps more than she falls, which is a sign of focus issues. If anybody can straighten her out, it's Brian Orser, but will his methods have time to make an impact this soon in their partnership?
Amelie Lacoste (CAN) was recently crowned Canadian champ, but her federation does not yet have enough faith in her to send her to Worlds in it's one slot. They are using this event as a playoff between Lacoste and Phaneuf, so that will make for a good fight between them. I think I trust Lacoste more in the clutch than I do Phaneuf, particularly because she has momentum coming in from Canadians.