Five figure skating storylines at the halfway point of the Grand Prix season …
1. Nathan Chen can win gold, but which men will join him on the U.S. Olympic team?
The 18-year-old wunderkind has the second-highest score of all men among the first three of six Grand Prix events, trailing only world silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan (scroll for full standings). Chen should qualify for December’s six-man Grand Prix Final with a top-three finish at Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend.
Perhaps a bit surprisingly, there’s a great chance for another U.S. man to join Chen at the Grand Prix Final. That’s because Jason Brown and Max Aaron finished second and third, respectively, in their first of two Grand Prix starts.
The Olympic team of three men will be announced after the U.S. Championships in January. A selection committee will choose the skaters based not only on nationals results, but also performances from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.
Qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual competition outside of worlds, would be a huge resume booster. So big that a skater could finish outside the top three at nationals and be put on the Olympic team on the merit of that sort of international accomplishment.
Brown or Aaron could make his first Grand Prix Final with another podium finish this week (Brown in Japan) and next (Aaron in France).
Brown, who made the 2014 Olympic team at age 19 and finished ninth in Sochi, struggled with injuries the last two seasons and has not cleanly landed a fully rotated quadruple jump in competition. He makes up for it with artistic marks, which helped him take bronze at nationals (one month after a stress fracture in his right fibula) and seventh at worlds last season.
Aaron was not favored to make the Olympic team coming into this season. He was ninth at last year’s nationals — after being top four each of the previous four years. But Aaron had a personal-best free skate at Cup of China on Saturday, landing three quads, and is now firmly in the Olympic discussion.
U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, who won the world junior title in March, fell three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut last week. He was still fourth and just 3.03 points behind Aaron.
Then there is Adam Rippon, who joined Chen at last year’s Grand Prix Final. Rippon was then unable to defend his title at nationals (broken foot). Rippon skates at his first Grand Prix in Japan this week, followed by Skate America two weeks later. He could make another Grand Prix Final with two podiums.
2. U.S. women still bunched
None of the top four U.S. women — vying for three Olympic spots — from last season distinguished themselves from the pack in their Grand Prix debuts.
U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell had the highest score of the group, good enough for sixth place at Rostelecom Cup and 15th overall so far this season. Ashley Wagner‘s bronze-medal effort at Skate Canada was actually 4.62 points shy of Bell’s total.
U.S. champion Karen Chen was seventh at Skate Canada, while Mirai Nagasu was ninth at Rostelecom Cup.
Russia and Japan each have four women who rank higher than the best American so far this season, which shows where the power lies in women’s skating.
Could any other Americans step up? Courtney Hicks, whose best nationals finish was fourth in 2013, nearly beat Wagner at Skate Canada in her only Grand Prix assignment.
Then there is Polina Edmunds, the 2014 Olympian who is slated for her first Grand Prix in two years next week in France. She will look to massively improve on a 13th-place finish in a lower-level event a month ago.
The highest-scoring U.S. woman this season has zero Grand Prix experience. That’s Bradie Tennell, who was fourth at a small event in Italy in September. Her Grand Prix debut at Skate America could shake things up.
3. For three U.S. couples, the dance resumes
There is little doubt who will fill the three U.S. Olympic spots in ice dance.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been the top three couples at nationals, in some order, each of the last five years (excluding Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are not active).
Only once in that span have Hubbell and Donohue beaten the Shibtuanis or Chock and Bates in any competition. Which makes their scores in three separate Grand Prix events this fall so interesting.
Hubbell and Donohue have the highest U.S. score (by .19 over the Shibutanis) after each couple’s opening Grand Prix.
For the remainder of the Grand Prix series, the three U.S. couples are again separated. Hubbell and Donohue go in Japan this week, followed by Chock and Bates in France next week and then the Shibutanis at Skate America.
They’re all in line to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which would make a great nationals preview.
Meanwhile, the favorites for Olympic gold and silver remain French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who traded world records the last two weeks in separate competitions.
4. Top U.S. pairs team set for Grand Prix return
Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim remain the favorites for the one U.S. Olympic pairs spot heading into their first Grand Prix since 2015 this week.
Though the Knierims missed most of last season due to her life-threatening abdominal condition, they came back to place 10th at worlds.
The U.S. champions in their absence, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, were 20th at worlds and opened their Grand Prix season with their worst result (seventh at Skate Canada) in seven career starts.
5. Canada loses its grip on team event
Pressure is on Patrick Chan to find his form, or Canada may be beaten by Russia again in the Olympic team event.
Chan, the world champion in 2011, 2012 and 2013 who took a year off after silver in Sochi, bombed in the Skate Canada free skate and then pulled out of this week’s Grand Prix in Japan.
Canada is strong in the other disciplines — world champions in ice dance, world silver and bronze medalists in the women’s event and the 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs. But Chan has been its only reliable man in recent seasons.
This season, Chan ranks 20th in the world. Canada needs him.
Russia, meanwhile, may have finally found its successor to Yevgeny Plushenko. Mikhail Kolyada was fourth at 2016 Worlds and then won Cup of China on Saturday.
Kolyada outscoring Chen in both programs of an Olympic team event could completely swing the standings in Russia’s favor.
Russia has the world’s best female skater in Yevgenia Medvedeva (plus the world junior champion), the world bronze medalists in pairs and a respectable ice dance couple in Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev that should place no worse than fourth in the team event.
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Grand Prix Season Top Scores
1. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 301.10 (Skate Canada)
2. Nathan Chen (USA) — 293.79 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 290.77 (Rostelecom Cup)
4. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 279.38 (Cup of China)
5. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 271.06 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 264.48 (Cup of China)
7. Jason Brown (USA) — 261.14 (Skate Canada)
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 259.69 (Cup of China)
9. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 256.66 (Cup of China)
10. Misha Ge (UZB) — 255.33 (Rostelecom Cup)
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 231.21 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 215.98 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.88 (Cup of China)
4. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 212.91 (Skate Canada)
5. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 212.52 (Cup of China)
6. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 207.17 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Yelena Radionova (RUS) — 206.82 (Cup of China)
8. Mai Mihara (JPN) — 206.07 (Cup of China)
9. Marin Honda (JPN) — 198.32 (Cup of China)
10. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 196.83 (Cup of China)
15. Mariah Bell (USA) — 188.56 (Rostelecom Cup)
18. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 183.94 (Skate Canada)
19. Courtney Hicks (USA) — 182.57 (Skate Canada)
20. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 178.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
24. Karen Chen (USA) — 170.40 (Skate Canada)
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 200.43 (Cup of China)
2. Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 199.86 (Skate Canada)
3. Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 190.01 (Skate Canada)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 189.43 (Skate Canada)
5. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.24 (Rostelecom Cup)
6. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 184.74 (Rostelecom Cup)
7. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 184.50 (Cup of China)
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 231.07 (Cup of China)
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 224.25 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford (CAN) — 222.22 (Skate Canada)
4. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 215.66 (Skate Canada)
5. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 214.37 (Skate Canada)
18. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 172.95 (Skate Canada)