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Assessing the Grand Prix figure skating season at the halfway point

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The Grand Prix figure skating season — whose results are the best indicators of favorites for national and world championships — is at its midpoint.

Skate America, Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup are behind us. Trophée de France, Cup of China and NHK Trophy are ahead, followed by the Grand Prix Final (six skaters per discipline) in December.

The U.S. Championships are in January, followed by the world championships in Helsinki in late March and early April.

With the Olympics a 15 months away, jockeying for position this season is more important than the previous two. Here is where things stand for each discipline:

MEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 292.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 285.07 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 279.34 (Skate America)
4. Jason Brown (USA) — 268.38 (Skate America)
5. Patrick Chan (CAN) — 266.95 (Skate Canada)
6. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 263.06 (Skate Canada)
7. Adam Rippon (USA) — 261.43 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Jason Brown — 268.38 (Skate America)
2. Adam Rippon— 261.43 (Skate America)
3. Max Aaron — 235.58 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Timothy Dolensky — 226.53 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Grant Hochstein — 204.69 (Skate Canada)

What’s remarkable here is the progression in scores in the last three seasons. Two years ago, the top men’s score after the third Grand Prix was 269.09. Last year, it was 271.14.

Uno was the best skater in September and October, winning all three of his events, but Fernandez looked more like a world champion in his debut last weekend. The Olympic champion Hanyu is a notoriously slow starter. His Skate Canada score was actually higher than his Grand Prix debuts in 2014 and 2015.

We’ll have a better sense of the American picture after Nathan Chen makes his Grand Prix season debut in France this week. Chen, 17 and the youngest man to finish top three at the U.S. Championships since 1973, beat Patrick Chan at a lower-level event in October.

WOMEN
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 220.65 (Skate Canada)
2. Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 215.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 206.45 (Skate Canada)
4. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 196.44 (Skate America)
5. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 195.60 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 192.08 (Skate Canada)
7. Mariah Bell (USA) — 191.49 (Skate America)

Top U.S. Grand Prix Scores
1. Ashley Wagner — 196.44 (Skate America)
2. Mariah Bell — 191.49 (Skate America)
3. Gracie Gold — 184.22 (Skate America)
4. Courtney Hicks — 182.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Mirai Nagasu — 151.42 (Skate Canada)

Medvedeva hasn’t lost in one year and seems unlikely to follow the trend of recent Russian stars who flamed out after one strong season (2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 2014 Olympic champions Yulia Lipnitskaya and Adelina Sotnikova). She picked up at Skate Canada right where she left off at the world championships last season.

Wagner and Pogorilaya, who joined Medvedeva on the worlds podium last April, won the other two Grand Prix events in the first half. The surprise has been Osmond, who tacked 30 points onto her personal-best total score in this her fourth season of international competition.

Wagner is still the class of the U.S. group, in part because Gold is off to a slow start (fifth at Skate America) after taking much of the summer off from training. U.S. silver medalist Polina Edmunds isn’t competing in the Grand Prix season due to a foot injury. If Gold or Edmunds is not back and in top form at the U.S. Championships in January, Bell is looking like the most promising riser in several years.

Pairs
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 218.30 (Skate Canada)
2. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 207.89 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yu Xiaoyu/Zhang Hao (CHN) — 202.08 (Skate Canada)
4. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 197.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Julianne Séguin/Charlie Bilodeau (CAN) — 197.31 (Skate America)
6. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 192.65 (Skate America)
7. Lubov Ilyushechkina/Dylan Moscovitch (CAN) — 190.22 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 192.65 (Skate America)
2. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.23 (Skate Canada)
3. Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — 173.50 (Skate America)
4. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 171.95 (Skate America)

Duhamel and Radford may well be en route to a third straight world title (not done in pairs since 1978). Not only did they win Skate Canada for a third straight year, but the two pairs who joined them on the 2016 World Championships podium aren’t competing in the Grand Prix season. Neither are Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov due to pregnancy.

However, Savchenko and Massot raised eyebrows by attempting a throw quadruple Salchow at the end of their Rostelecom Cup free skate. If they can control it — Savchenko fell in Moscow — the gap to the Canadians closes considerably.

The U.S. is once again lacking pairs consistency. The top Americans from the last two worlds, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, are out due to Scimeca’s health problems. The surprise 2016 U.S. champions, Kayne and O’Shea, were beaten at Skate America by Denney and Frazier, who sat out last season after Denney blew out her right knee.

Ice Dance
Top Grand Prix Scores
1. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 189.06 (Skate Canada)
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
3. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 186.68 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 185.75 (Skate America)
5. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA) — 180.35 (Skate Canada)

Top U.S. Scores
1. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 188.24 (Skate Canada)
2. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 185.75 (Skate America)
3. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 182.13 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 175.77 (Skate America)
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 162.19 (Skate Canada)

The two-time reigning world champions, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, make their Grand Prix season debut this week. In their absence, the dance results have gone pretty much to form. Virtue and Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions who sat out the previous two seasons, impressed by beating two-time world medalists Chock and Bates on home ice at Skate Canada.

In the U.S., Chock and Bates and the Shibutani siblings remain in close contention in the early national title handicapping. Hubbell and Donohue finished right behind them at the last four U.S. Championships. That doesn’t figure to change in January. As the U.S. should get three couples at the 2018 Olympics, Hubbell and Donohue will be very interested if Meryl Davis and Charlie White decide to return next season.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

USA Hockey to start reaching out to potential replacement players

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USA Hockey will begin reaching out to “alternate players” to determine their interest in playing for the U.S. at the women’s world championship next week amid a potential boycott by its national team.

The contact is taking place in the event a resolution cannot be reached between USA Hockey and the women’s national team in a wage dispute.

“It’s important for everyone to understand clearly that our objective is to have the players we named as the U.S. women’s national team be the ones that compete in the world championship,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, in a statement. “Productive conversations have taken place this week and are ongoing in our collective efforts to reach a resolution.”

The alternate players are in the professional NWHL and college, according to USA Today, a report that USA Hockey would not confirm.

U.S. captain Meghan Duggan has said every player in the U.S. national team player pool, plus under-18 national team players, committed to not playing at worlds unless the wage dispute is resolved.

The world championship tournament starts March 31 in Plymouth, Mich.

As of Thursday evening, no resolution has come between USA Hockey and its women’s national team. They met formally on Monday for more than 10 hours, with both sides calling it productive.

Neither side has said when its next scheduled meeting will take place.

On Tuesday, USA Hockey said it postponed a pre-worlds camp that was to run through next Tuesday in Traverse City, Mich., and canceled a scheduled Friday exhibition against Finland.

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NHL asked for decision on Olympics by end of April

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International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel tells The Associated Press he needs to know by the end of April whether NHL players will be cleared to play in the South Korea Olympics next year.

NHL team owners have made it clear they don’t want to stop their season again for the Winter Games and put their stars at risk of injury. The reluctance has come up before and yet the NHL has participated in the Olympics since 1998. This time, however, there seems to be an impasse.

The head of the NHL Players Association, Donald Fehr, says the players want to participate and hopes the league will take advantage of the chance to market the game in Asia.

However, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says without “material change to the current status quo, NHL players will not be participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics.”

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MORE: 2018 Olympic hockey groups set