This season has been quite the rollercoaster for the American men. As the 2017 US Championships in Kansas City draws near, we find the horizon dramatically shifted since the season started four months ago. Defending champ Adam Rippon withdrew with a broken bone in his foot, 2015 champ Jason Brown dropped a bombshell about a stress fracture that has taken him off training for weeks, and 2013 champ Max Aaron has been climbing his way back after hernia surgery over the summer. And through all this, last year's bronze medalist, Nathan Chen, has emerged as a solid favorite after a transformative skate at the Grand Prix Final.
So is it Chen's U.S. title to lose? Can Aaron simmer his way back to the top of the podium? Will a not-100% Brown figure out how to get on the World team? Or does someone else surprise?
2017 US Championships Predictions
Official hashtag: #USChamps17
[At Nathan Chen's teleconf]— Jackie Wong (@rockerskating) January 12, 2017
Moderator: Any ?s for Nathan?
Reporters: <silence> Sorry we already asked all of Nathan's ?s to other skaters
GOLD Nathan Chen - With everything that has taken place this week, Chen, already a solid favorite since his Grand Prix Final silver medal in December, became an even hotter topic this week (so much so that basically all of the other skaters were getting Nathan Chen questions during their teleconferences). The fact of the matter is, Chen is coming in with technical content that will be heads and shoulders above everyone else. He has the most difficult short program of any skater on the planet, and really only Boyang Jin and Yuzuru Hanyu are on par with the difficult of his free skate. And so that's to say that Chen can make a few mistakes and still walk away with the title.
The huge difference from last season is the combination of his vast improvements in components and his proven ability to score in World medal territory internationally. Without those two elements last year, Chen couldn't count on his quads to give him an edge - he was merely counting on his quads to compensate for lower PCS. What a difference a year makes. And yes, the 2017 US men's title is absolutely Chen's to lose.
SILVER Max Aaron - Aaron has been flying under the radar all season, partly because the reliability of his big jumps wasn't there when competitions started. But as he's recovered from hernia surgery over the summer, so has his confidence level. And we saw him skate a very solid free skate at Cup of China in November. He comes into Nationals with a new short program and a relaxed enthusiasm that will serve him well. And with Brown not at 100% and possibly without a quad, it's Aaron who has an advantage differential in technical elements over Brown's advantage differential in program components. It remains to be seen whether he will bring back the quad toe - I'd imagine it will be a week-of decision for him.
BRONZE Jason Brown - After a stunning free skate at Skate America, Brown was completely out of sorts at NHK Trophy and missed out on the Grand Prix Final. And we since found out that he had a stress fracture on his fibula, which has kept him off the ice for a few weeks during the lead-up to Nationals. Brown downplayed his readiness on his pre-competition teleconference, saying that he will likely be around 80% in Kansas City. That doesn't bode well for him, already at a disadvantage in the technical department. Likely without a quad toe or with a quad toe that is iffy at best, he will need the stars to align for him to get onto the World team. And after his petition to Worlds was denied last season (as the reigning US champ at that point), he's giving it a go here in order to give himself a fighting chance for one of the two spots. My guess is that it will be a conservative play of two no-quad programs - but he will need to be perfect and for Chen or Aaron to make mistakes.
4. Vincent Zhou - Really under the radar, Zhou had a so-so Junior Grand Prix Series and withdrew halfway through his one senior event in December with a leg injury. But signs have been pointing up since then, if Instagram is any indication. He's got the same bag of tricks that Chen has, though they are not as tried and true as Chen's are. He was eighth here last season, but with the landscape of the men's field changing, he could sneak his way up to the top four and set himself up well for the Olympic season.
5. Ross Miner - He had a stunning short program last year at Nationals that put him in contention for the podium again. But his free skate was an implosion, and much of this season has been similar. The curious thing about Miner is that, from many accounts, he's been strong in training but can't put it together in competition. So we know it's there - and if he finally brings it to the table, he could be the dark horse for the podium.
6. Alexander Johnson - With a career skate here last year, Johnson had a strong sixth-place finish. His skating has an ease and purity to it that attracts very good (and arguably still underscored) component marks. He's made it a habit to bring his A game to Nationals, so I'm putting some money on him doing it again this season.
7. Timothy Dolensky - Seventh here last year, Dolensky comes in to Kansas City with hopes of making a bigger breakthrough. But the fact is that his consistency isn't quite there in competition, which makes him a bit of a wildcard here.
8. Grant Hochstein - A fourth-place last year and a top 10 finish at Worlds highlighted a career best season for Hochstein last year. But this season so far has been a struggle, especially with two 11th-place finishes on the Grand Prix. Like Miner, he's got the components and the goods to challenge for the podium, but it's going to require skating that is way above and beyond what we've seen from him in the past five months in order for him to even have a shot at getting a medal.
9. Sean Rabbitt - Ninth last year, Rabbitt tends to deliver strong programs without a consistent triple axel. But he had solid performances at US Classic and sectionals during the fall, which bode well for another top ten finish here next week.
10. Shotaro Omori - World junior bronze medalist four years ago, Omori has yet to regain that spark that got him there. But his Pacific Coast Sectionals performance, which put him just behind Rabbitt for silver, showed promise.