It's like someone has been letting the air out of the balloon in the men's event at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Yes, the U.S. men have not recently been the most impressive on the technical front, but the competition is always super intense because of the cast of skaters and their potential to put down some magical performances. Just look at the podium from last year - Jason Brown, Adam Rippon, Josh Farris, and Max Aaron delivered fantastic free skates.
But Brown and Farris are out with injuries. Joining them on the sidelines are Richard Dornbush, former U.S. silver medalist, and Jordan Moeller, both of whom are also out with injuries. Add to that list four-time champion Jeremy Abbott, who sat out the season but recently won the Medal Winners Open with a performance that would've sat him pretty well in the short program at Nationals next week. So yes, the field is now pretty depleted, but even so, the competition is going to be exciting, with at least five skaters who have the ability to get on the podium.
2016 US Nationals: Rocker Predictions
GOLD Nathan Chen - When there was all kinds of hype on Chen last year, I scoffed. It wasn't his time yet - his triple axel was still iffy, he was injured, and his skating was far less all-around than that of the other top guys. And unless there was some sort of huge shakeup and everyone made multiple mistakes, it wasn't going to be his year. But this year is a different story. He dominated the Junior Grand Prix. And though there was that two-fall free skate flip in the Final, he demonstrated throughout the year that he not only now has all the jumps necessary (including a reliable quad toe and a new quad sal) but he has also made big strides in his basics. Chen's technical is what will get him onto the podium, but perhaps more subtly, the (long) search for the next star in U.S. skating might be what propels him to the top.
SILVER Max Aaron - But of course, that's not to say that Chen is a heavy favorite. That is not the case by any means. Aaron, the champion here three years ago, has reinvented himself this season in a lot of ways. I said at the beginning of the season that this could be a new, more successful era in his career, and it's shaping up that way. He won Skate America, his first Grand Prix title and biggest win since 2013 Nationals, in October but had a surprising dip in the short program at Trophee Eric Bompard that left him seventh and out of the Final. But a week later, he came back and won Tallinn Trophy. It's pretty likely that the Skate America win wasn't a fluke, and he comes in to St. Paul as one of the favorites. Two clean free skates from Aaron will beat two clean free skates from Chen, but can he get it done and win #2?
BRONZE Adam Rippon - Speaking of reinventions, Rippon's Nationals last year was exactly that. It was a fresh look from him, along with a confident triple axel, the jump that had been out of whack for a few seasons. With that element back in play, the focus has turned to the quad lutz that he re-debuted last year at Nationals. The way the points work, rotation (or at least not a downgrade) is key, even if he ends up falling on it. Either way, delivering clean triples will put him on the podium, and some version of two landed quad lutzes will be his ticket to his first National title.
4. Grant Hochstein - It's just been surprise after surprise from Hochstein this season. After a mediocre start with a seventh at Nebelhorn, he put down four very solid performance in the Grand Prix to finish fourth at both. Believe it or not, his best finish at National was SEVEN years ago, when he debuted seventh in 2009. He comes in more consistent than ever, and particularly with the Brown, Dornbush, and Farris out, this will be his best chance yet at really making a splash. He's very much a podium contender here, and perhaps once again, he will be dark horse that surprises everyone.
5. Ross Miner - Rostelecom Cup (or as I called it, "Rosstelecom Cup" ... I'm so clever) was quite a return to form for Miner. He took his first Grand Prix medal since 2012 with career-high scores, and this is the best he's looked since that season, when he took silver at Nationals and went to Worlds. What will hurt him this week will likely be his not-so-trusty quad salchow. But if there is any silver lining, it's the fact that he fully rotated one at Rostelecom, something he hadn't done for over a season (last fully-rotated quad sal was at Autumn Classice in 2014). Maybe he'll be in a St. Paul state of mind.
6. Vincent Zhou - When Zhou became the youngest U.S. junior champ three years ago, many saw him as the next big talent. After all, he won intermediates in 2011, novice in 2012, and junior in 2013 - not something you see very often But two years of injuries derailed his progress in competition, and St. Paul will be his first time back at Nationals since that junior triumph. Zhou's jumping talent is indisputable, though - within just this season alone, he's added a quad salchow and a triple axel to his repertoire. Just a couple of days ago, we saw a new quad toe in practice. So yeah, add all of this to what we've seen from him on the Junior Grand Prix this season, expect his senior debut to be a very strong one.
7. Timothy Dolensky - Dolensky was part of that set of Skate Canada free skates that I still believe is one of the greatest sets of all time. He's got a quad sal in his pocket, but it's likely still not ready for prime time yet. And that will be the biggest obstacle to him getting into the top five. Dolensky is a very elegant skater, and if he's on, and the more difficult programs have mistakes, the potential is there.
8. Alexander Johnson - Speaking of elegant, Johnson is one of those skaters who has a way of mesmerizing you with his basic skating. A lot of skating fans will remember his free skate from 2013 Nationals, when he moved from 12th to 7th with a fantastic effort. Incidentally, he's gone back to that Eleanor Rigby free skate (except this time in vocal form).
9. Sean Rabbitt - 12th at Nationals last year, Rabbitt's international results this season have been up and down. After a bronze at Autumn Classic to start the season, he ended all of 15th at Golden Spin. But his performances at sectionals were strong, and a top 10 finish for the first time is within reach.
10. Shotaro Omori - Omori has struggled since winning bronze at Junior Worlds three seasons ago. He was second at Pacific Coasts, and will be looking for a first top 10 this week.