NHK Trophy 2014 Pairs Review

This week, we saw the Grand Prix series end with NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. Going into the competition, many were anticipating a big showdown between Duhamel/Radford and Kavaguti/Smirnov, both of whom won their earlier Grand Prix events in convincing fashion. This highly anticipated matchup didn’t turn out quite as expected; both teams skated well below their best in the long program. Duhamel/Radford came out on top with a solid, if not impressive, victory, and both teams qualified easily for the Grand Prix Final. Yu/Jin of China took bronze and claimed the sixth and final GPF slot. Let’s see how the pairs did in Osaka.

nhk-podium

NHK-results

Duhamel/Radford

The team at the top

The team at the top

After a resounding win at Skate Canada, Meagan & Eric were looking to make another strong statement here at NHK.

They started off very well. They skated their Un Peu Plus Haut SP with great confidence and energy throughout. Their twist was only level 2, but well done, with +GOE across the board. Next, they landed an excellent set of SBS 3Lz, followed by a strong throw 3Lz. All of their remaining elements were level 4 and well executed. Their GOE was all positive; not a single negative mark. They scored 72.70 in the SP, exactly matching their SP total at Skate Canada.

Duhamel/Radford’s SBS 3Lz has improved so much this season. This element is becoming a real weapon for them. Not only are they landing it consistently, they’re doing it with great quality. The jumps are high and amazingly well synchronized. So not only do they get the high BV, but also strong GOE. They earned 7.00 points for this element in the SP, making it the highest-scoring set of SBS jumps by any pair in the whole GP series. (The next highest was Stolbova/Klimov’s SBS 3Ts in the Rostelecom SP, which earned 5.70.) The strength of this element is important for Duhamel/Radford, especially in the SP, where other pairs have less opportunity to make up points on other elements. (For example, Peng/Zhang and Sui/Han can add the quad twist in the LP to make up points, but cannot do so in the SP.)

Duhamel/Radford have the highest SP score of the season for pairs, due in part to the SBS 3Lz. Their SP music works well for them, and the overall package is strong. I would favor them to win this segment at the GP Final.

Meagan/Eric followed up their stellar SP with a somewhat disappointing performance in the long program. They opened with a good level 2 twist and, again, excellent SBS 3Lz. However, Meagan then fell on the throw 4S. Unlike their previous attempts, this one wasn’t really close. They recovered with strong SBS spins. But the energy seemed to fall off after that. Meagan doubled the first jump in the 3T/2T/2T combo and stepped out of the landing on the throw 3Lz. The pairs combo spin was a bit labored, and they lost 2 levels (1 point base value) on the final lift. Their final LP score was 127.08, almost 11 points off what they scored at Skate Canada.

D/R’s Muse LP has received generally good reviews, especially compared to last year’s Alice LP. I feel the first section of the program is strong. The fast-paced music complements their big, athletic tricks. However, when the music slows down and the energy drops, the weaknesses in D/R’s skating become very apparent, compared to the top Russian pairs. They just don’t have the same extension, presentation, and general quality in the transitions and choreography. I don’t think this program helps them particularly, but at the same time it’s not getting in their way, either. The PCS they’ve gotten for the long program (66.22 here, 68.11 SC) is not as high as Stolbova/Klimov’s or Kavaguti/Smirnov’s best PCS LP marks this season (71.88 and 70.10 respectively). However, D/R’s PCS is still very good.

Going into the GP Final, I will certainly expect to see D/R on the podium there.

Next: GP Final

Kavaguti/Smirnov

Program of the year

Program of the year

This event was rather disappointing for Kavaguti/Smirnov. Coming off strong performances at Nebelhorn and Skate America, many were expecting this pair to contend for the GP Final, Euro, and World titles. However, their performance here was a setback.

They started off the competition with a good, but not great, short program to Meditation from Thais. Yuko had a scratchy, imperfect landing on the SBS 3T, but held on. The rest of the elements were fine, although they lost a level on their step sequence. There were no other mistakes, and it was a very nice program. However, it seemed to lack a little of the beauty and magic they had at earlier events. It was just a tiny bit lackluster. The program is lyrical and lovely, and I think it works well as a vehicle for them, but perhaps they just need a bit more energy and polish the next time out. Their GOE scores on the elements were lower than at Skate America. The overall score was correspondingly only 64.60, compared to 69.16 at Skate America. Yuko was not pleased in the kiss-n-cry.

Kavaguti/Smirnov followed this skate with an imperfect perfomance of their Manfred Symphony LP. Yuko fell on the second triple in their 3T/3T sequence and had a wide, swingy landing on the SBS 2A. She then fell on the throw 4S. The program got stronger from there, and the throw 3Lp was well done, as were the three lifts. Yuko & Sergei performed the program very well, despite the mistakes. They kept the energy level up and really showed off the lovely, interesting choreography. Their score was 119.00, well off the 140.00 they earned at Skate America.

It was a shame to see K/S struggle with the elements, because this is clearly the long program of the year in pairs. It’s far and away better than anything else in the field, and it’s a joy to watch even when performed less than perfectly. The music is powerful, the choreography is gorgeous, the whole package is just wonderful. If Kavaguti/Smirnov could perform this program cleanly and to its potential, I think they would have a legitimate shot at winning all the major events this year. It’s that good.

But the unfortunate fact is that K/S have always been very inconsistent competitors. Odd, bizarre mistakes tend to keep them not only out of gold, but often out of the medals entirely. They started off this year looking stronger at Nebelhorn and Skate America, but this competition was, unfortunately, a bit of a return to their typical form. Even at their best, they do not have the difficulty of Duhamel/Radford or the stellar execution of Stolbova/Klimov. So they really must skate clean to have a shot at winning.

I’m crossing my fingers that they can put it all together and skate much better in Barcelona.

Next: GP Final

Yu/Jin

Up and coming

Up and coming

This young Chinese team followed up their silver medal at Cup of China with the bronze here at NHK. In doing so, they qualified for their first GP Final, just ahead of Tarasova/Morozov.

Yu/Jin had a great competition here. Their SP was very solid. They landed good SBS 3Ts and did a good triple twist. She two-footed the landing on the throw 3Lp. Their step sequence was only a level 2; I think this is an area where they need to improve. I’d like to see them get into the ice more and skate with deeper edges. They seem to glide lightly over the surface at times and don’t really use the ice as much as they could to generate speed and power. Still, they improved their SP score here from CoC by 3+ points.

Yu/Jin skated very well in the long program. Their SBS jumps were all very good, well landed and well synchronized. They had great height on the triple twist, and the throw 3Lp was excellent, gaining all +2s and +3s in GOE. She landed forward on the throw 3F but held on. They unfortunately ended the program with a random error in the pairs combo spin, which left them chagrined. However, the overall impression was excellent, and they placed second in this segment. Their long program, set to Humility & Love from the Creation soundtrack, is surprisingly effective. The music has a pensive, haunting quality, and the choreography by David Wilson is interesting. Yu/Jin interpreted the program nicely.

One thing I notice about this team–aside from their impressive technical proficiency—is that Xiaoyu Yu lacks the potent charisma and star power of her teammates Cheng Peng, Xuehan Wang, and to a lesser extent Wenjing Sui. Xiaoyu is a very good skater, but she doesn’t shine in the spotlight quite the same way the others do. Her partner Yang Jin stands out only a bit more. How do these two develop their artistry going forward? I’m thinking they will need to focus on developing their chemistry as a team—like Pang/Tong did—rather than putting the focus on either of them individually. This long program is a good initial step in that direction.

Next: Grand Prix Final

Bazarova/Deputat

Getting used to each other

Getting used to each other

Vera & Andrei had a pretty good outing in their second GP event together. I think they’re making progress.

Their My Way short program was pretty good. The opening SBS 3Ts were landed. Their level 3 triple twist was a tad low but nicely done, and gained positive GOE.Their throw 3Lp had good ice coverage. Vera’s position on the death spiral was to die for. Overall it was a good skate for them, and they looked pleased with it. Some people don’t like this program because of the muzak version of My Way, but I personally love it. I find these two so interesting together. Vera is beautiful and delicate; Andrei is strong and elegant. Their SP score was 59.62, almost 3 points higher than they scored at CoC.

Their long program was not quite as strong. Vera fell on the opening jumps, which only counted as SBS 2T. They completed the 2A/1Lp/2S combo, but the 2A was underrotated and got negative GOE. They also had negative GOE on both throws. Perhaps of more concern, their lifts were a bit shaky as well. They had problems with the mount/dismount of the reverse-entry lift. And Vera’s lift positions actually looked a bit weak, surprisingly for her. Some of the positions just need to be held a bit longer and more strongly. I don’t know if this is a matter of timing and comfort within the lifts, or if it’s something else.

(In general, I wonder if Vera would benefit from more off-ice workouts designed to build strength. At times she just looks so fragile, and more strength might help. Maybe she’s already pursuing this.) It wasn’t a great long program for her & Andrei. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the presentation and choreography. There’s just a lot of classiness with this team. And I feel like their connection and transitions and pairs quality are improving.

Their LP score here was 3+ points less than at CoC. So overall, they were pretty much flat from the previous competition. Still, not bad for a new team. They have a lot of work to do, but I like what I’m seeing so far.

Next: Russian Nationals

Vartmann/Van Cleave

A better placement, but still much to improve on

A better placement, but still much to improve on

This was an up-and-down competition for the German pair. Their short program did not go well; Mari fell on both the SBS 3T and throw 3F. She was almost in tears as they left the ice–sad. They rebounded in their Aranjuez LP and landed some elements. However, unfortunately, most of the landings were not clean and received negative GOE. They finished 5th here, much better than their 8th place at Skate Canada. However, their scores were pretty much the same as Skate Canada. Unfortunately, this pair has a lot to work on. Consistency, skating skills, and Aaron’s footwork in the lifts all need major improvement.

Next: German Nationals (I think)

Leng/Shnapir

Simon brings the drama

Simon brings the drama

After a rocky debut at Rostelecom, DeeDee & Simon had a better outing here at NHK. This team still has a long way to go, but this event was a small step in the right direction.

They started with several mistakes in their SP. Simon turned out of the SBS 3S, and DeeDee fell on the throw 3S. Their SBS spins were well synchronized, though. They were a little hesitant on the entry to the hip press lift, but the lift had good ice coverage. They scored 45.91, about the same as Rostelecom. I enjoy their Carmina Burana SP. Some people feel this music overwhelms them, and I suppose it does, but I still kind of like it. And that ending pose is, well, interesting! 🙂

Their Miss Saigon LP was not bad. They’re only doing a double twist, but at least they’re getting good height on it (unlike Takahashi/Kihara). They landed the SBS 3T/2T, albeit with a turnout again from Simon. DeeDee fell on the SBS 3S, but landed the throw 3S. Overall they scored 92.33 in the LP, nine points better than Rostelecom. So, improvement.

A strong point for this team is lifts. The lifts not beautiful, by any means, but they’re quite technically solid for such a new team. I think Simon is very underrated as a lifter. His footwork really looks quite good, and they get nice ice coverage on the lifts. Now they just need to work on smoothness and improving the positions.

The biggest area that needs improvement, though, is speed. Right now, this pair is very slow on the ice. It seems like both of them individually have power in their skating, but they need to put that together as a team.

The good news is, they seemed comfortable and at ease in the kiss-n-cry after both skates. Some people felt there was tension at Rostelecom, which I myself didn’t see, but enough people commented on it that I wondered. Here, though, they seemed fine and to be getting along well. I kind of like these two as a team. I look forward to seeing them develop in the next year or so.

Next: U.S. Nationals

Takahashi/Kihara

What to say?

What to say?

This team beat Leng/Shnapir at Rostelecom, but fell behind L/S here to finish last at NHK, their home Grand Prix. Not the outcome they were hoping for.

Both programs were, as usual, marred by falls on the SBS jumps from Narumi. None of the throw jumps were cleanly landed, either. Their SBS spins were good in both programs–a bright spot.

Watching this pair, it’s hard to believe Narumi was world bronze medalist just two years ago. She still has lovely positions in the lifts and spins. But she and Kihara just don’t seem to be gelling as a pair. Their lifts look shaky—his footwork isn’t the best, and I’m not sure he really has sufficient arm strength to hold and spin her as he needs to. Worse, they just look very young and juvenile together. Their skating is very “small”; they look like 2 kids out on the ice. I’m not sure exactly what the problem is—their stroking? I guess the good thing is, with absolutely no competition in Japan, they have all the time in the world to improve.

Next: Japanese Nationals

Wrapup

So, that concludes the Grand Prix season. We now have the Grand Prix Final to look forward to!

What will happen in Barcelona? The results of the Grand Prix series suggest the title is likely between Stolbova/Klimov and Duhamel/Radford. I give the edge to Stolbova/Klimov, because they’ve been the most consistent team so far, have the most quality in their skating, and also the biggest reputation. However, we have to remember that Stolbova/Klimov enter the competition at a disadvantage in base value to D/R. Over the GP season, D/R’s average total base value was 93.50, compared to 85.15 for S/K. So, Stolbova/Klimov will need very strong performances to beat Duhamel/Radford.

Kavaguti/Smirnov and Peng/Zhang will have another chance to deliver their sophisticated, lovely programs and do full justice to their superior material. I hope both teams can put it all together!

Sui/Han and Yu/Jin will be looking to prove themselves in this field, maintain their strong technical standard, and make an impression on the judges.

It will be interesting, as always, to see who comes out on top!

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