Ice Network

New era of men's skating on display in Helsinki

Medvedeva looks to repeat; Pairs field wide open; Virtue, Moir favorites
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Skaters like Yuzuru Hanyu (left), Nathan Chen (middle) and Shoma Uno will be performing quads at an alarming rate in Helsinki this week. -Getty Images

American skating greats Scott Hamilton and Rosalynn Sumners must have great memories of Helsinki, the host city of the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships: It was there that they both won the world title in 1983, a year before they went on to medal at the Olympics in Sarajevo.

These world championships should provide huge fireworks, just as those did, and reveal who will be the main contenders for next year's Games in PyeongChang!

Men: Breaking into a new era

In April 2016, a quartet of teenagers -- China's Boyang Jin, Japan's Shoma Uno, Team USA's Nathan Chen and Israel's Daniel Samohin -- were celebrated as the 2016 Icenetwork People of the Year, for redefining men's skating with their jumping prowess.

Less than a year later, three of those "quad musketeers" will fight against the two reigning kings, Spain's Javier Fernández and Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, for a world gold medal (Samohin is only an alternate this year). Hanyu and Fernández are still considered the best "packagers," with their unique blend of skating skills, transitions, choreography and interpretation...but history can change quickly!

"I'm grateful of their (Jin, Chen and Uno's) efforts," said Hanyu and Fernandez' coach, Brian Orser, during the 2017 European Championships in January. "They are boosting Yuzu and Javi."

Chen already has managed to top the 300-point bar (at Four Continents), becoming just the third man to do so after Hanyu and Fernández. And Patrick Chan, the three-time world champion, is not far behind.

Who will win in Helsinki: quad masters or skating packagers? Will these championships mark the change of a generation? We will know the answer by the end of the week.

It took 10 years, from 1952 to 1962, for all five triple jumps (loop, salchow, toe loop, flip and lutz) to be landed at a major championship. It has taken nearly 30 years, from 1988 to 2016, for all five quads to be landed -- but only two seasons for the most difficult ones, lutz, flip and loop.

These world championships will be the first ones to offer the full array of quads -- until the quad axel comes along, which may not happen in this Olympic quad.

But the way things are going, anything seems possible.

Dance: What a menu!

Take the podiums from both the European and Four Continents championships, stir them a bit, and you should not be far from the recipe for this year's world podium.

France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron come to Helsinki as the reigning champions.

"We'll have to learn how to face a strong adversity," Cizeron admitted after he and Papadakis were defeated by Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille.

The French team regrouped to win their third European title a months later, giving a mesmerizing performance in the free dance.

Almost three years after leaving the competitive stage, Virtue and Moir beat two world records at the Grand Prix Final, amassing 80.50 points for their short dance and 197.22 points overall. (The French still hold the world record for the free dance, with 118.17 points.) Helsinki will mark an important milestone for both teams, as it will define the gold-medal favorite for the Olympics.

These worlds, however, won't be only a bittersweet "pas de deux" between those two teams. Team USA appears at its strongest in Helsinki. Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani have developed a unique flair and personality to go with their exceptional mastery of edges. Madison Chock and Evan Bates have enhanced their incredible strength and dexterity on the ice, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have continued to develop their trademark charisma and unison.

Throw in Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, and Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, and the dance meal in Helsinki should be calorific!

Ladies: Evgenia Medvedeva again?

Russia's reigning world, European and Grand Prix Final champion has always made it clear that her aim is winning Olympic gold medal. Her complete domination over her peers these last two seasons makes her the one to beat in Helsinki. She now holds the world record scores in all three categories: short program (79.21 points, which she earned at the 2016 Grand Prix Final), free skate (150.79 points, 2017 European Championships) and combined total (229.71 points, 2017 Europeans).

The field behind Medvedeva, however, looks quite open.

Russia's Anna Pogorilaya may be the one to watch. She has significantly improved her consistency, and her programs are both interesting and mature. She has medaled at five of her six competitions this season, the exception being the Russian championships, where she ended fourth.

 "I'm like a fine wine -- I keep getting better," Team USA's Ashley Wagner said after her stellar silver medal-winning performance at worlds last season in Boston.

The first part of Wagner's 2016-17 season was not up to par, but she has had time to prepare for worlds and could have another great surprise in store. Her teammates, U.S. champion Karen Chen and U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell, will make their debut at worlds.

Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond re-emerged this year on the strength of her golden short programs. If she skates her free program at the same level, she may well be the surprise of these worlds.

Italy's Carolina Kostner is back on the world scene for the first time in three years. The 2014 Olympic bronze medalist possesses unparalleled speed, amazing grace and reliabile jumps, all of which make her a solid contender for the podium.

With Satoko Miyahara still recovering from a stress fracture in her hip, the Japanese squad may not be as strong this year, but the two up-and comers who will be competing, Wakaba Higuchi and Mai Mihara, could make their presence known on the global stage.

Pairs: A new opening?

"Is it really worth taking the risk of a throw triple axel?" Meagan Duhamel wondered after the Grand Prix Final, after the team was not rewarded for the tricky element.

Duhamel and Eric Radford, Canada's reigning world gold medalists, started to push the technical content of the pairs discipline years ago. Since then, most leading pairs have thrown themselves through the door the Canadians have opened. Quad twists and throws should be prevalent in Helsinki.

The Grand Prix Final gold medalists and newly crowned European champions, Russia's Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, will be eager to confirm their status as global leaders in Helsinki. But their teammates, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are back in peak form.

Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot won the free skate to claim silver at Europeans. They land throw triple axels and quad salchows regularly now.

"It was a difficult year for the Chinese team," coach and Olympic gold medalist Hongbo Zhao explained during the Grand Prix Final in Marseille. "Wenjing Sui had to recover after an injury, as the tendons of both her ankles needed to be repaired. And the other two pairs switched partners a few months ago."

Sui and her partner, Cong Han, won the world silver medal in 2015 and 2016, and they come back to the world championships looking for gold, especially after their convincing victory at Four Continents.

The French team of Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who won the European bronze medal, have also joined the elite club of "quadders." Team USA's Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier will have to fight hard, but they could certainly light it up in Helsinki, as powerful and explosive as their skating is.

Just like in the men's category, quads should make the difference in pairs.