2015 NHK Trophy preview (pairs): Duhamel/Radford look for 9 in a row

When Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov withdrew from this week's NHK Trophy, the tantalizing matchup between the current Olympic champs and the current World champs was off the table. What's true is that pair skating circa November 2015 looks a whole lot different from pair skating circa November 2014. There are four pairs here who have a chance at the Grand Prix Final - which of them will make it to Barcelona?

Rocker Predictions: 2015 NHK Trophy

GOLD Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford CAN - There was something about the way that Duhamel/Radford raced through last season without a loss that made them seem almost invincible when this season started. But four weeks after they won Skate Canada, the landscape of pair skating looks a whole lot different.

Kavaguti/Smirnov, Sui/Han, Stolbova/Klimov, and Savchenko/Massot all scored over 139 in their free skates, and Volosozhar/Trankov hit mid-70s in the short at Bompard before it got cancelled. The top of the leaderboard all of a sudden looks incredibly crowded, and you better believe that Duhamel/Radford know this - Duhamel is famous for her kiss & cry number-crunching. They will certainly be looking to make a statement this week on their way to a possible ninth victory in a row.

SILVER Xiaoyu Yu/Yang Jin CHN - Their bronze at Cup of China was a very strong showing. Yu/Jin are artists with a knack for the technical elements. And where they fall behind a bit in their side-by-sides they make up for in their execution. They also debuted a quad salchow in Beijing, though it doesn't look ready and/or confident quite yet. It's tough to see them really threatening Duhamel/Radford for gold this week, but a silver will go a long way toward getting them to Barcelona.

BRONZE Alexa Scimeca/Chris Knierim USA - The U.S. champs have looked great in the short program this season, but their free skate has been a trickier puzzle to solve. What we know now is that they are capable of hitting 70 in the short program, which put them in a very different league than they were in last season at this time. But booming quad twist and big throws aside, they will need to get their side-by-sides together to challenge for the silver. It's well within their reach.

4. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres FRA - The French pair were the surprise of the short program at Trophee Eric Bompard, where they finished second before the competition was cut short. This puts them in the very enviable position of possibly qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final. And because of the 13 points they got at Bompard, a fourth place (9 points) here would get them to Barcelona on the basis of the 7th-qualifier rule. It's not a guarantee, by any means, and they will need to skate two solid programs to get there.

5. Lubov Iliushechkina/Dylan Moscovitch CAN - After a really strong debut season last year, Iliushechkina/Moscovitch have struggled this season so far, especially on their side-by-sides. But more importantly, they are sure to be fine-tuning that press lift that they have been getting invalidated in the short program. The latest hypothesis is that Moscovitch's lifting arm is not straightened out on the lift, which makes it invalid as an element. We'll see where their progress is this week.

6. Vera Bazarova/Andrei Deputat RUS - Fifth at Skate Canada, Bazarova/Deputat haven't lived up to the potential they have as pair skaters. And it's perhaps because they haven't quite gelled as a pair, or it's just that their elements are inconsistent and they haven't been able to show their best selves. Either way, they will need to skate stronger to really make any dent in the standings this week.

7. Jessica Calalang/Zack Sidhu USA - Their sole competition so far his season was Ice Challenge, where they finished fourth. Their fifth-place showing at Nationals last season was a career-best, but they haven't yet shown those signs of brilliance yet this season.

8. Amani Fancy/Christopher Boyadji GBR - Making their Grand Prix debut, Fancy/Boyadji had perhaps the most unusual story of the season, when they split in the middle of Nebelhorn Trophy earlier this season. They got back together and actually took bronze last week at Tallinn Trophy.