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NHK Trophy Preview and Predictions

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This week marks the start of the Grand Prix Series and the true beginning of the skating season for me.  The NHK Trophy takes place in Nagoya, Japan, starting October 22.  Here is a look at some of the potential storylines from the event.

Pairs

Why to Watch:  China's Pang and Tong are coming off such a wonderful season as world champs and Olympic silver medalists.  Though they may be the overwhelming favorites here, it will still be exciting to see their new programs.  Russian team Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov appear to have been anointed as the next great Russian pair since things did not quite work out for Kavaguti and Smirnov the way they would have liked at the Olympics.  I think Bazarova and Larionov still have a way to go to compete with the top pairs but they have a lot of potential and international judges are impressed.

Keep and Eye Out for:  Americans Denney and Barrett, who switched coaches in the offseason to John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, have their first Grand Prix event here. I will be interested to see if Denney and Barrett have made any advances technically, and more importantly, in presentation.  If they can't get the bronze here, I would think that would be a major disappointment considering the field.  Additionally, the pairs hierarchy in the U.S. is so transient these days that you know Yankowskas and Coughlin are gunning to make their mark.  Also watch for Japanese up-and-comers Takahashi and Tran, big on the junior circuit.

Predictions:

1) Pang and Tong (China)

2) Bazarova and Larionov (Russia)

3) Denney and Barrett (USA)

Men

Why to Watch:  World champion Daisuke Takahashi will be there representing the home team.  I have not watched his new programs yet and a Takahashi program tends to be special.  He was a bit shaky all through last year's Grand Prix season since it was his first time back from knee surgery - will he be better this year?  He had some trouble at the Japan Open a few weeks ago.  American champ Jeremy Abbott will also be there.  Abbott was up and down in the Grand Prix last season and he had a lot of nerves at Olympics and worlds.  He has also been dealing with boot problems this offseason, so who knows what to expect.

Keep and Eye Out For: France's Florent Amodio, who is always so lovely to watch and is now working with Nikolai Morozov, and American Ross Miner, who is trying to break into the senior scene with some successful skates here.  There are a lot of contenders for the various medals.  There will also be a lot of attention on home crowd skater Yazaru Hanyu, making his senior debut. 

Predictions:

1) Takahashi

2) Abbott

3) Amodio

Ice Dance

Why to Watch:  Well, I would watch anytime Davis and White are skating so I think that is reason enough.  They should be the favorites here by a mile, unless they err.  And then err again. Italy's Cappellini and Lanotte are dynamic and will be fun to watch and likely medalists here.

Keep an Eye Out For:  Russian world junior champs Ilinych and Katsalapov.  I am envisioning that like Bazarova and Larionov in pairs, this is the next hope for Russian ice dancing.  I will be interested to see where the judges score them; they experienced a lot of success very quickly on the junior scene...will they have a similar rise in seniors?  I am also interested in seeing Canadians Weaver and Poje, who have medal chances, and Americans Shibutani and Shibutani.

Predictions:

1) Davis and White

2) Cappellini and Lanotte

3) Ilinych and Katsapalov

Ladies

Why to Watch:  Well, world champ Mao Asada completely bombed in her season debut at the Japan Open, but that's not necessarily devastating.  Let's see if she can assert herself as the Grand Prix favorite with a win in her home country event.  I have not seen her programs yet but I will be interested to see if they are lighter than last year's depressing skates.  I am also very intrigued by Rachael "putting off college until 2011" Flatt.  She has obviously committed to figure skating this season and I think that it will be a make it or break it year for Flatt as far as whether she can win over the international judges.  Of course, skating clean, like we know she can, won't hurt.

Keep an Eye Out For:  American Ashley Wagner, who was the only American to qualify for the Grand Prix Final last season, and Japan's Kanako Murakami, the world junior champion.  Kiira Korpi is also always a medal threat, and I wonder if Carolina Kostner can reassert herself as a judge favorite by putting together some solid programs after last year's disasters.  And what of Caroline Zhang, whose Olympic bid last season was a disaster?  Can she recover and become relevant again?

Predictions:

1) Asada

2) Flatt

3) Murakami