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Wellman's fantasy skating preview: Skate America

Big-time showdown in men's at season's first Grand Prix event

Will Jeremy Abbott's first appearance at Skate America result in a gold medal?
Will Jeremy Abbott's first appearance at Skate America result in a gold medal? (Tom Briglia)

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By Tara Wellman, special to icenetwork.com
(10/10/2012) - Can you believe it? Skating is back!

Competitions have been going on around the world in the last few weeks, and we haven't even hit the Grand Prix Series yet, but that's all about to change as skaters assemble in Kent, Wash., this week for the 33rd edition of Skate America.

That also means something else: Fantasy skating is back!

But before we get to the nitty-gritty of the Skate America lineup, there are a few changes you should probably know about. Trust me, they're all good.

First, you'll notice that the U.S. Figure Skating Fantasy Challenge got a facelift in the offseason. The fancy new results graphic -- complete with the event's top performers as well as overall and weekly team standings -- will be updated Sunday night after the completion of each event.

In addition to the $25 credit to the U.S. Figure Skating Online Store the weekly winner receives, an autographed 5x7 photo is part of the prize. (Skate America's lucky winner can look forward to a Jeremy Abbott autograph!)

There has also been an adjustment to the scoring. Like last year, the point total for each of your team's picks will be added together, creating your total score. However, picking the gold medalist will earn you 15 bonus points, the silver medalist 10 and the bronze medalist five.

Also, for those of you looking ahead, you probably noticed an extra event on the fantasy schedule. The World Team Trophy will be one more chance to push your team to the top!

But for now, it's all about Skate America. And let me tell you, this year's Grand Prix opener isn't short on drama.

Let's start with the most obvious storyline: the men.


Men's

Group A - Abbott, Michal Březina, Yuzuru Hanyu, Takahiko Kozuka

Březina had some surprising successes last season, but in this event, he'll be the odd man out, as the Japanese and the Americans square off.

Abbott is capable of so much, as is Kozuka. And if you think they're hard to predict mid-season, just try to guess how they'll perform to start the year! Now, Kozuka did debut his free skate at the Japan Open last week, scoring in the 165 range. That's good ... but maybe not good enough.

I wouldn't have counted out Lysacek -- he's the reigning Olympic champion, after all -- but he announced his withdrawal on Wednesday.

By process of elimination, I'm taking Hanyu. Not only did he have a stellar finish at the world championships last year (seventh in the short, second in the free and third overall), but he also put up 248+ points at Finlandia last week. The only other Group A skater to top that score last year was, well, himself at worlds.

Group B - Tomáš Verner, Tatsuki Machida

The veteran versus the young gun. While Verner is certainly capable of brilliance, he has struggled mightily in the last year or so. Meanwhile, Machida continues to chip away at the advantage the so-called veterans have on him. Head to head at the NHK Trophy last season, Verner barely bested Machida (by 1.18 points) after pulling up from ninth to fifth in the free skate.

However, just last week at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, Machida easily topped the field, beating Verner (who placed third) by more than 32 points.

That's proof enough for me. Machida it is.

Group C - Alexander Majorov, Konstantin Menshov, Douglas Razzano

Razzano is a "skater's skater." However, experience is lacking. He very well could play spoiler in this group, but it's a risky bet.

Majorov has experience, but often of the disappointing kind. Menshov's 2011 scores were significantly higher, just as they were at the Nebelhorn Trophy a few weeks back, where he took second overall. I'm betting Menshov's quads lead him to the top in Group C.


Pairs

The pairs event pits several young teams against one another, but there's no questioning the inevitable fireworks at the top.

Group A - Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov

The fact that Pang and Tong are still competitive is remarkable. However, their comeback at worlds last season fell short. While the podium is quite possible, I doubt the top step is.

Denney and Coughlin will be facing the Russian wonder team for the second time already this season. Both teams made solid debuts at the Nebelhorn Trophy.

But there was no real contest. The Americans have made good strides, but they're no match for Volosozhar and Trankov. Barring disaster, they take Group A.

Group B - Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres

This group could be tight. Both American teams are capable of big tricks and magical moments, but both have struggled to put together clean competitions.

Donlan and Speroff saw James and Cipres at Nebelhorn a few weeks ago. It was close in the free skate, but the French held off the Americans for bronze by about six points.

James and Cipres then competed at the French Masters event, scoring 164+ (nearly 13 points higher than their ISU personal best).

This one could be close, but James and Cipres have my vote.

Group C - Stacey Kemp and David King, Danielle Montalbano and Evgeni Krasnopolski

Little experience and flip-flopping placements between these two make it difficult to predict. But Kemp and King have the higher personal bests and experience beyond last season.

It'll come down to which team shows up ready to compete, but I'm taking the Brits.


Ladies

The ladies of the Grand Prix are always full of surprises, and this year should be no different.

Group A - Alena Leonova, Adelina Sotnikova, Ashley Wagner

All three of these ladies have already competed this season, but only one could be satisfied with her performance.

While Sotnikova finished a disappointing second at Nebelhorn and Leonova performed a subpar free skate at the Japan Open, Wagner put up 123+ points in her free in Japan, topping a field that included Mao Asada.

Wagner is ready. My vote is hers.

Group B - Viktoria Helgesson, Haruka Imai, Valentina Marchei

All three ladies here have had moments of brilliance. Helgesson impressed in the early going last season, while Marchei came on strong toward the end of the year.

But Imai may have had a breakthrough recently, jumping from ninth to third after a much-improved free skate at Nebelhorn. Last year at Skate America, Helgesson edged Imai for the bronze, but if Nebelhorn is any indication, Imai is aiming to switch that result.

Group C - Maé Bérénice Méité, Christina Gao, Sarah Hecken, Rachael Flatt

The variables in this group are complicated.

Méité and Hecken will likely not factor into this decision. That said, the American girls are anything but a given. Flatt is coming off of a disappointing season, but she's made some changes in attempts to become competitive again. Gao battled some injuries last year but has talent enough to run away with this group. Her 152.48 at Cup of China last season leads the group.

Based on potential, Gao is my Group C pick.


Ice dancing

Ice dance always brings the drama ... and this season opener is bringing the heat, too.

Group A - Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje

If you like head-to-head comparisons, this group has them. Rostelecom Cup, the Grand Prix Final and worlds give a good indication at how these three matched up last season.

Each time, the result was Davis and White, Weaver and Poje, Bobrova and Soloviev.

Only the Canadians have competed this season, scoring 161.38 in winning at Ondrej Nepela, but I have yet to see any reason Davis and White aren't the far-and-away favorites.

They're an easy pick for Group A.

Group B - Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt, Isabella Tobias and Deividas Stagniunas, Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi

Kriengkrairut and Giulietti-Schmitt are fast making a name for themselves ... and that's for their skating and not the Scrabble points their names would earn! They opened their season with a 140.86 and a bronze medal at the inaugural U.S. International Classic.

Zhiganshina and Gazsi made their debut at Nebelhorn with a score of 142. They also have more international experience than the young Americans, so in this case, I'm expecting experience to pay off ... even if only by a hair.

Group C - Lorenza Alessandrini and Simone Vaturi, Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus

Here, too, it becomes a matter of experience. Not that either team has much, but Alessandrini and Vaturi did skate at NHK and worlds last season as well as at Ondrej Nepela Memorial last week.

On that alone, the Italians are my pick.