Post-game thoughts: 2016 U.S. Nationals Day 2

Whew, we had a better one the second day of the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships than we did on the first day, didn't we? The short dance and the men's short programs were very solid overall, and the crowd - however anemically small it looked to be from where I was sitting - was much more into it, mostly because there was a more consistent set of performances today.

And since the action starts bright and early tomorrow, I'll (try to) keep this short.

Chen attempts two quads
The daredevil at these Nationals is Nathan Chen, the Junior Grand Prix champion who is in his second Nationals on the senior level. Coming in, we knew that he could pull off something special. And he didn't disappoint - becoming the first American to attempt two quads in the short (at least to my recollection). The quad toe, in combination with a triple toe, was clean, but he turned out of his opening quad salchow. That, plus a hand down on his triple axel and a level 1 flying spin, took him out of scoring in the 90s. He sits in fourth and less than five points out of the lead.

Was the scoring right?
After Chen put up that 86.33 in the first group, the first skater to overtake him for the lead was a clean but quad-less Ross Miner. Miner certainly got the audience's vote today, with his New York State of Mind short program getting a standing ovation even before it ended. It was classic Miner, classic rock, and classic US judging. And by that I mean that the U.S. judging panels, probably more than those of any other of the top countries, have favored all-around skaters over all else.

Hypothetically, Miner's clean skate would have been in the 85-88 range internationally (he scored just under 86 at Rostelecom Cup with a clean short), so his 90.90 at home is not an egregiously high score. But putting Miner's 90.90 as the baseline, a program like Chen's, with two quads and even with the minor mistakes and the level 1 spin, would've scored in the 85-88 range as well internationally. And so his relative deficit to Miner probably would've been wiped away if this were an international competition.

If you don't believe that, go look at Boyang Jin's short programs this season. He's hit almost 96 with his two-quad SPs. Jin's quad lutz would've given him about three points of base value over Chen's quad salchow, and Chen's components are stronger than Jin's. So add all those things up, and a clean Chen would be in the 92-94 range - subtract the spin level and the negative GOEs for the errors, and you get a score in the upper 80s.

What about Aaron?
Our leader after the short, Max Aaron, hit a quad sal-triple toe in his clean short. Like Chen, he too had a lower level spin that took a bit of base value away. But that doesn't excuse his lead of just under a point over Miner. Internationally, Aaron would have likely been 88-90 with that short program, so his relative lead over Miner should have been a couple points more. 

Are the US judges doing the skaters a disservice by not necessarily playing by the international rules, which tend to technically-ambitious skaters? Yes and no. By promoting all-around skaters, they are setting the bar for skaters coming up the ranks to be able to jump AND skate. This isn't dissuading people from jumping - Chen and fellow up-and-comer Vincent Zhou are showing that American men can jump with the best of the quadders.

So then what's the problem? Well, the problem is that by not pushing the super jumpers up immediately, the US isn't giving them immediate success. But what they are doing is make sure that these jumpers work on their all-around skating. Look at Aaron - he's grown leaps and bounds just in the last year in his skating, and it's not like he's lost his jumps - they've actually gotten more consistent. And the same will be true for Chen, and likely Zhou. This strategy has the potential to craft all-around skaters who are also jumpers and are capable of competing with the Hanyus and Chans of the world, as opposed to super jumpers who may plateau because their basics haven't caught up with their technical.

It's a long-term play that may or may not pay dividends. The instant gratification types look at the last few years and have been frustrated at the lack of progress. But the jumpers are starting to materialize - it's only a matter of them before they become the all-around skaters that the U.S. judges want them to be.

Rocker lightning round
And finally, a few quick thoughts about the rest of the day's events.

  • Madison Chock/Evan Bates lead after the short dance, but only by less than half a point over Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani. Not too many expected it to be this close, but as I have noted, the Shibutanis may be closing the gap. The free dance will be interesting.
  • In practice, Gracie Gold, Tyler Pierce, and Ashley Wagner all had very strong practices. I was unable to stay for short program leader Polina Edmunds' full practice, but she was looking good as I was leaving. 
  • Speaking of the men, north of the border, Patrick Chan delivered his first clean short of the season and take a huge lead going into the free skate.