Last year’s NHK Trophy was most certainly memorable for Yuzuru Hanyu’s world record performances – which he amazingly topped two weeks after at the Final. And we are here again for the final Grand Prix event before the Final, with eyes on the Olympic champion to see whether or not he can create the magic that the entire home crowd is aching to see. Oh, and of course, Grand Prix Final spots are on the line.
GOLD Yuzuru Hanyu JPN – A bit of déjà vu for Hanyu here, as he comes into NHK this year similar to last year – a subpar performance at Skate Canada and questions around whether or not his programs are too risky. There will be no backing away from the quad loop here, his new (and most difficult) element. We saw him land it earlier in the season when he became the first ever to hit a clean one in competition. Do I think it will be two clean superhuman programs? No. But I think it will be a big step forward from Skate Canada, and he literally skates away with the title and one of the three remaining Grand Prix spots.
SILVER Jason Brown USA – In a lot of ways, this competition will be the battle between Brown and Chen, Brown with the components advantage and Chen with the technical advantage. Having stood up that quad toe (questionably underrotated) at Skate America, Brown should be going in this week with a good bit of confidence. Standing up the quad toe in the short is going to be key for him, because he has to keep it close in the short if Chen skates cleanly. A podium finish puts Brown in the Final, but I think he’s got Nationals in the back of his mind, and finishing above Chen will go a long way to returning to Worlds.
BRONZE Nathan Chen USA – Quad flip and lutz in hand, Chen has the two most difficult programs of any skater in the world – IF he goes for the triple axel. We didn’t see it at Trophee de France, as he opted to supplement his barrage of quads with double axels in both programs. Top of mind for Chen will be a top two finish, which would likely put him in the Grand Prix Final depending on the other skaters’ finishes. And if he is going to overtake Brown (or Hanyu), he will need to be clean or almost clean, but the risk he takes in those programs (seven quads total) makes it tough to see happening right now. But boy oh boy, Chen could be the spoiler here.
4. Mikhail Kolyada RUS – Like Chen, Kolyada needs to be in the top two to give himself any chance at getting into the Final. But unlike Chen, Kolyada doesn’t have the huge technical content to be the spoiler if the others skate well. Teammate Sergei Voronov has established himself as the top Russian man so far this season, and it’s time for Kolyada to follow suit, one month ahead of Russian Nationals.
5. Alexei Bychenko ISR – With his first career Grand Prix medal in hand, Bychenko is looking to follow that up with a trip to the Final. Unfortunately for him, this field is going to make it incredibly tough for him to get there, or even get onto the podium again this week. What he does want to show at NHK, though, is that he is more reliable of a competitor than teammate Daniel Samohin, who had a meltdown in the free skate last week in Beijing. It’s really going to be the Worlds spot that he will have in mind this week.
6. Nam Nguyen CAN – The coaching and environment change after a disastrous Worlds showing last season has been very good to Nguyen so far this season. He’s looking much more like the skater we thought we would see last season after a very promising first senior season a couple of years ago. A couple of clean triple axels and quads, and we could see him challenge for top four here.
7. Elladj Balde CAN – Balde comes into this season as a much-improved skater. There’s something about the way he’s packaged this season that has transformed him, and he looks more sure of himself than ever. Balde has dark horse potential at NHK Trophy this week.
8. Grant Hochstein USA – 11th at Skate Canada, Hochstein had a nightmarish short program that kept him from really making any headway in the free skate. Fortunately, he comes back to a competition that gave him some good memories last year, where he finished fourth. He has a shot for the top half here, but will need to be a lot steadier than we’ve seen him this season.
9. Keiji Tanaka JPN – Seventh at Rostelecom Cup, Tanaka showed some of the promise that he had last season with a fifth-place free skate there. If he can keep his consistency together, he could have a shot at a top half finish.
10. Deniss Vasiljevs LAT – An 11th at Rostelecom Cup was not what the Latvian champ had hoped for in his Grand Prix debut. But his jumps were tentative there, which doesn’t bode well when you don’t have a quad.
11. Ryuju Hino JPN – Hino is making his Grand Prix debut this week at home. He was 11th at Finlandia Trophy earlier this season.