Although Russia's Evgeny Plushenko is undeniably the gold medal favorite heading into the men's short program tonight, if he were not there, I honestly don't think there would be a favorite. That is how many medal contenders there are out there - and they all have different strengths and weaknesses.
Jeremy Abbott: The two-time reigning U.S. champion is a bit of a wild card on this big of a stage. He turned in disappointing 11th place finishes at both of his world championship visits. However, he had two of the best performances of the season by any man at the recent U.S. National championships. He has a consistent quad that he'll be using in his free skate. He often does not do two triple axels in his free skate but he's decided to go with them here to get maximum scoring potential. It will all come down to landing jumps for Abbott. He will score high grades of execution on the jumps he lands, he'll get well-deservedly high program components scores for his amazing artistry, and he can technically compete with nearly everyone in the world (aside perhaps from those skaters doing three quads). Abbott has been the forgotten man on the U.S. scene, and what better way to make people take notice than to skate well at the Olympics? He skates perfectly, he wins a medal.
Patrick Chan: Chan is Canada's hope for a medal, particularly since he's the reigning world silver medalist. I think maybe Chan will be more ready for a gold attempt in four years, but expect some high scores on the grade of execution side and on the program components. Chan is possibly the greatest male artist skating right now - his moves are nonstop difficult and he is magic on the ice. Unfortunately, he is not on par technically. He often has trouble completing his triple axels and often has small errors here and there. He won't be trying a quad and methinks the skater doth protest too much with all of his interviews talking about how he doesn't need quads because he is such a superior artist. He will be bolstered by the artistry, however, and if he skates well enough to give the judges a reason to place him on the podium, I think they'll do it.
Brian Joubert: France's Brian Joubert has been one of the most vocal quad supporters, although he has been rather quiet this week. Joubert is a fantastic and energetic jumper, but he is not always clean. He'll be trying a few quads, and any errors on them will be costly, but he will definitely be a threat because of them. He scores higher on program components than many people think he should; he was recently called out by Evgeny Plushenko for not having good "transition" moves linking major elements, and his choreography is nowhere near the level of Patrick Chan or even Evan Lysacek. Joubert will be a threat here but it will come down to how many mistakes he ends up making. He won't get as high grade of execution as some of the other skaters.
Stephane Lambiel: Stephane Lambiel is the reigning Olympic silver medalist from Switzerland. Although he retired due to injury in 2008, he decided to come back for a last chance at another Olympic medal. Lambiel is an amazing artist with great footwork, amazing spins, and crowd-pleasing programs (watch out for his snappy William Tell Overturn short program tonight!). However, technically, he is a bit all over the place right now. He has never had a consistent triple axel, which hurts his short program score, since you must do either a double or triple axel and he opts for the double. He does do multiple quad jumps in his free skate but he does not do them very beautifully, so he should lose grade of execution points. His recent performance at European Championships won him a silver, but the jumps really did not seem good enough to me to get him on the podium here. The components scores should be high, though, so it really comes down to those jumps and how many points he loses by not doing the triple axel.
Evan Lysacek: Lysacek is the reigning world champion and is believed by many to be America's best chance for a medal here. He is a savvy competitor and he is confident, but he really cannot afford mistakes at all. He is not doing a quad here, so every other jump counts even more. He can garner high program components scores for his passionate, well-choreographed programs, but he often loses grade of execution marks on jump landings. He really needs to be pristine here to rack up every single point he can. I think Lysacek is a great pick for a medal - he has been the consummate professional this season. My concerns for him are that he does not have a quad, but he also has grade of execution troubles at times, and that combination could be problematic. On the bright side, we've seen Lysacek garner much better grade execution scores at times this season than we have in the past. And above all, he must land everything! No room for error in this field.
Nobunari Oda: Japan's Nobunari Oda came on like gang-busters this season. He has two amazing programs, particularly the wonderful Chaplin free skate. Oda has a history of fizzling out before the end of the season, and has no world medals to his name. It's also unclear whether he'll be trying the quad. One thing Oda does have is sublime jump technique. You'll hear the announcers comment on his soft knees - which are his great position in jump landings. He receives a lot a lot of grade of execution points for those jumps. A clean and energetic Oda will score very high in this competition.
Evgeny Plushenko: Hellooooo Plushenko. Plushenko is the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Plushenko has numerous quad jumps, and also an inexplicable ability to garner high (though not the highest) program components scores. He also skated clean at the last Olympics when everyone else was falling all over the place. If he skates here like he has been skating all season, he'll win. I have no doubt that a clean Plushenko will beat everyone else. If he errs, then who knows. Plushenko is not my favorite skater - he is blatantly arrogant, and I don't love his choreography or artistry. He has admitted to not bothering with transitions; he does not have the difficult jump entrances you'll see from someone like Jeremy Abbott. Unfortunately, that does not seem to affect him, and I cannot deny his excellence on the ice. He'll be a sight to see, and if he wins the gold, he'll likely deserve it.
The Dark Horses
Daisuke Takahashi: I love, love, love Japan's Daisuke Takahashi, but unfortunately he has been so up and down since coming back from knee surgery and a year out of skating that I'm not sure he'll be able to get it together at the Olympics. If he does, I'll be very excited. He has some of the best choreography and footwork in the sport. He has explosive jumps, but he doesn't always land them, is the problem. He still holds the men's free skate record score, so you know that a couple of years ago Takahashi had a chance to beat Plushenko. If he lands all his jumps here, expect extremely high program components scores. Unfortunately, he might lose some on grade of execution if the jumps aren't totally clean. He's been through a lot to get back here, but is very much a wild card right now.
Johnny Weir: The reason that Weir is a dark horse is that even at his best, it will be hard for him to medal against this field. And he has not often been at his best this season. He's a lovely artist and he'll get good program components scores, although his programs are not as intricate as, say, Patrick Chan's are. However, Weir has a history of popping jumps and if he starts to do that here, he can kiss his medal chances goodbye. If we see Weir skate to his full potential, the there is a definite chance for a medal. But he may have to count on others to err. UPDATED: Weir has been practicing a quad in Vancouver. I don't know if he's likely to land it clean, but it will be very exciting if he gives it an attempt! It'll show he's really going for it.
Also watch out for: Czech Republic's Tomas Verner who can often land quads like a maniac, but who also loses focus if he starts to err; Czech Republic's Michal Brezina who is young but has been racking up some impressive clean performances recently and finishing very well in competitions among more experienced skaters; Japan's Takahiko Kozuka, who has not been clean this season but when he is is, he can get high technical and program components scores, Italy' Samuel Contesti has a lot of charisma and big jumps and he may make a splash as well. There are so many others who may end up contending, but I will leave it here.