U.S. Nationals 2017: Pairs Preview

It’s hard to believe, but U.S. Nationals is right around the corner. Due to the Olympics, Nationals is very early this year (Dec 29-Jan 7). With the event coming up so soon, I thought I’d take a look at what to expect from the U.S. pairs in San Jose.

Although it hasn’t been a stellar year for U.S. pairs, there’s still quite a bit at stake in San Jose. In addition to the thrill and achievement of being a national champion or national medalist, this is what the pairs are competing for at Nationals:

— 1 Olympic spot

— 2 Worlds spots

— 3 Four Continents spots

That’s 6 post-season assignments to be decided at U.S. Nationals. The most coveted assignment is, of course, the sole Olympic berth. However, the 2 Worlds spots are also important, with next year’s Worlds allotment on the line. And both the Worlds and Four Continents berths offer U.S. pairs an opportunity to raise their season’s-best and world standings rankings, which could be important in obtaining Grand Prix assignments next year.

In this preview, I’m going to rely mostly on the numbers in assessing the U.S. pairs’ chances in San Jose. I’m a fan of all the U.S. pairs and want to see them all do well. So, any predictions or guesses I make in this preview column do not reflect my personal wishes, but simply what seems likely to happen, based on the U.S. pairs’ results this season. To look at the U.S. pairs’ performance this season, I compiled results from all of their international competitions, analyzing numbers for total score, long program, short program, etc. The data came from international competitions only (no club/regional events). In addition to looking at season’s-best scores, I also calculated average scores for each team.

U.S.-pairs-scores

So let’s see how the U.S. pairs stack up.

Favorites: Scimeca Knierim/Knierim

Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim are the clear favorites heading into U.S. Nationals. The Knierims have by far the most impressive total body of work of any U.S. pair, as we can see from the list below:

–Top 10 at Worlds 4 times (no other current U.S. team has placed top 10 even once)

–Only U.S. pair to make the Grand Prix Final in the last decade

–Only current U.S. pair to medal at Four Continents in non-Olympic (fully attended) year

–Winner of 2 Grand Prix medals (no other current U.S. team except Denney/Frazier has won any Grand Prix medals)

Knierims-pose

Not only do the Knierims have a big advantage in overall body of work, their international scores from this season support their status as favorites. They lead the U.S. pairs in just about every category this season. They have:

–The highest season’s-best scores of any U.S. pair for total score, short program, and long program

–The highest average scores in total score, SP, LP

–The highest average GOE, TES, and PCS scores

The Knierims’ greatest area of dominance is in their grade of execution (GOE), or quality, scores. Their average total GOE per competition this season is 14.1 points. The next closest U.S. team (Denney/Frazier) got only 6.8 points in average GOE. That is a huge differential for the Knierims; it indicates the judges see a high level of quality in their technical elements. As Ryan Bradley pointed out recently on the Olympic Channel, much of the Knierims’ GOE advantage is due to their triple twist and their throw jumps; both elements are the highest-quality and most consistent among all U.S. teams. However, the Knierims also get solid GOE marks for their lifts and death spiral.

The Knierims’ PCS lead over the other U.S. teams is not as large, but still significant. The Knierims’ average total PCS this season is 94.29. (Next highest: Castelli/Tran at 87.53.) Although the Knierims’ PCS doesn’t approach that of top teams such as Sui/Han or Savchenko/Massot, it’s clearly the best among U.S. pairs.

The Knierims have not skated to their highest level this season, but they have been consistent. Their LPs have all been in the 124-126 range. Their SPs have been in the 61-65 range. While some of the U.S. pairs have been quite inconsistent this season, with fairly large swings in scores, this is not the case for the Knierims. When you consider that consistency, plus how well the Knierims represented the U.S. at last year’s Four Continents and Worlds, it seems likely that USFS can rely on them to hopefully produce a similar level of performance in 2018.

The Knierims have a good overall package this year. Their triple twist is outstanding; their throw jumps have been strong. They’ve been practicing the quad twist again, and could bring it back for Nationals, Olympics, or Worlds. Their programs, reprised from last season, have been well-received (especially their Ghost LP). The only area of concern is their side-by-side jumps, which have been hampered partly by Chris’s left patella knee injury. Otherwise, they look good to go. All they need to do at Nationals is put out 2 more performances at the level they’ve been showing so far this season. If they do that, they should be national champions and the consensus & obvious pick for the Olympic team and first slot on the Worlds team.

Top Challengers: Castelli/Tran and Denney/Frazier

When you look below the Knierims, the picture gets a lot murkier for U.S. pairs. There are a number of U.S. pairs that are quite close to each other in terms of results and scores. None of these teams has clearly set themselves apart from the others. Most have had some decent results, but also some disappointing scores, this season.

Despite relative parity among the teams, when you look closely at international scores, last year’s gold and silver medalists Denney/Frazier and Castelli/Tran emerge as the top challengers behind the Knierims.

Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran have the 3rd-highest total (177.15) score among U.S. teams. If you look at average international scores, they are 2nd in average total score (174.69) and 2nd in average LP score (117.35). They are also 2nd in average TES and PCS, and 3rd in average GOE.

InkedPCS-sample_LI.jpg

As much as Castelli/Tran continue to struggle with their side-by-side jumps, the rest of their technical elements are fairly strong. Their throw jump consistency has improved this season (knock on wood). Their triple twist is among the better twists from American pairs. Their spins and step sequence are probably the strongest among all U.S. teams, and their lifts and death spiral also score well. For all their inconsistency on jumps, which has been frustrating for U.S. pairs fans, they actually deliver quite a bit of quality elsewhere in their skating.

Castelli-Tran

Castelli/Tran’s weakness this season has been the short program. They have the 3rd-highest average SP score among U.S. pairs (57.22), but have underperformed in this segment, with their season’s-best score being only 5th-highest (58.99) among American teams.

On paper, Castelli/Tran look poised to win another medal in San Jose. However, they’ll need to have strong performances in both segments of the competition.

Denney/Frazier, meanwhile, are defending national champions and also seem likely to medal again. Like the Knierims, Denney/Frazier haven’t skated their best this season and aren’t among the top 4 American teams in season’s-best total or LP scores. However, when you look at average scores, they have the 3rd-highest average total and LP scores, behind the Knierims and Castelli/Tran (171.19 average total, 110.67 average LP).

Denney-Frazier-lift

Denney/Frazier’s strong point this year is the short program. They skated well in the short program at both their GP events and have the 2nd-highest season’s-best SP score overall among Americans (63.26) and the 2nd-highest average SP score (60.52). They are also 2nd in average GOE and 3rd in average PCS.

Like other U.S. teams, Denney/Frazier have struggled a lot with their side-by-side jumps this season, which has hurt their base value and TES scores. They’ve also given up precious points on elements like spins and death spirals. However, they counter those weaknesses with a strong triple twist, probably the best lifts of any U.S. team, and good programs & presentation.

Denney/Frazier have a lot of experience, which should help them at Nationals. They sometimes struggle with nerves in competition, but should still be podium favorites.

Wild card: Cain/LeDuc

As was the case last year, Ashley Cain/Tim LeDuc appear to be the wild-card team heading into Nationals. Cain/LeDuc have had an inconsistent season. They skated decently at their first Challenger Series event. At Nebelhorn, they bombed in the SP but had a season’s-best in the LP. Then Ashley got sick at their GP event, Cup of China, which led to low scores.

Cain-LeDuc-2.jpg

If you look at average international scores, Cain/LeDuc are 4th among U.S. teams in average total score, LP, and SP. If you look at season’s-best high scores, they are also 4th in best total and SP score—but 2nd in LP score. They are not among the top 4 U.S. teams in average total GOE, TES or PCS (but do rank 3rd in base value).

Cain/LeDuc have a base-value advantage with their more difficult side-by-side jumps, but this is offset by frequent mistakes and underrotations on jumps, as well as a weak triple twist. Their other elements are, in the context of the U.S. field, neither particularly strong nor noticeably weak.

The numbers suggest that Cain/LeDuc will finish off the podium. But what makes them a wild card is their artistry. With their charisma, passion, and flexibility, this team has a special ability to connect with audiences and judges. Their artistry could help carry them to a medal in San Jose, but only if they can raise the quality of their technical elements.

Next level: Stellato/Bartholomay, Kayne/O’Shea, Liu/Johnson

The 3 teams on this level are all quite close to each other in scores and results (and also not far below the 3 teams I just discussed).

Stellato-Bartholomay.jpg

Deanna Stellato/Nate Bartholomay have skated pretty well this season, considering it’s only their second year together. Their strong point is their base value and TES. They attempt more difficult content than some of the other American teams (trying side-by-side triple Lutz and throw quad Salchow at various points this season). And although they’ve made a lot of mistakes on jumps, their errors tend to be falls, stepouts, or hand-downs, rather than costly pops into singles or doubles. Their triple twist and lifts are also fairly good. Where Stellato/Bartholomay suffer is in GOE and PCS. Their jump mistakes tend to drag down their GOE, and their average PCS (79.74) lags about 6 to 7 points behind teams like Castelli/Tran, Denney/Frazier, and Cain/LeDuc.

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea, 2016 U.S. champions, are still coming back from injury. They were only able to compete once internationally this season at Golden Spin. They presented nice programs in Zagreb, but struggled with their jumps and triple twist. Given their lack of competitive experience this season and the recency of their return, it seems unlikely that Kayne/O’Shea will figure into the medals or post-Nationals assignments this season. However, this team often performs their best at Nationals, so I certainly wouldn’t count them out.

Liu-Johnson.jpg

Chelsea Liu/Brian Johnson are almost as much of a wild card as Cain/LeDuc. In their first year as seniors, Liu/Johnson only competed twice internationally—and their results couldn’t have been more different. They had what was probably a career-best competition at U.S. Classic; their total score at that event (181.40) is the 2nd-highest season’s-best among U.S. pairs, with their LP/SP scores both 3rd-highest. However, their total score at Warsaw Cup was only 145.14, over 35 points off U.S. Classic. (They didn’t even break 50 in the SP.) Which Liu/Johnson will show up at Nationals? Your guess is as good as mine! (I’m hoping it’s the promising U.S. Classic team.)

Predictions

So, here are my predictions—which won’t come as a surprise, after the discussion above. Again, I just want to note that these are projections based on international numbers/results only. As always, I’m sure there will be some surprises.

GOLD – Knierims

SILVER – Castelli/Tran

BRONZE – Denney/Frazier

PEWTER – Cain/LeDuc

Post-Nationals assignments

Now that USFS has moved away from using Nationals results as the primary criteria for post-season assignments, the level of controversy and discussion around these assignments has inevitably grown. Although USFS has published tier criteria for post-season assignments, no numerical values are assigned to the tiers, and the tier results did not seem to be applied to last year’s pairs post-season assignments in any recognizable way. Therefore, I won’t spend time looking at the tiered criteria, but will just offer a few thoughts on this year’s post-Nationals assignments.

Olympics: Heading into Nationals, the Knierims have made a strong case that they should be the U.S. pair assigned to the Olympics. As discussed above, their overall body of work and their recent international scores all strongly suggest that they are the top choice for the spot. No U.S. pair will be competitive for an individual pairs medal in Pyeongchang, but we do have a chance for a team medal, and the Knierims are the pair most likely to help achieve that. My hope is that the Knierims’ performances at Nationals will reflect their ability and accomplishments, so that if they’re selected for the Olympics, the choice will be as straightforward and noncontroversial as possible.

Worlds: Last year at Worlds, the U.S. lost its second spot in pairs for the Olympics. I think some have viewed this as an aberration, due to the 16-spot limit for the Olympics. However, the truth is, the U.S. could again be facing a fight this year to keep that second pairs spot. If you look at the current ISU season’s-best list for pairs total scores, the top U.S. pairs are just 16th/19th on the list. If those placements were replicated at Worlds next year, we would only qualify 1 pair for 2019 Worlds. Of course, some pairs on the current season’s-best list will not compete at Worlds; but they may well be replaced by other pairs who are also ahead of U.S. pairs on the season’s-best list. Basically, the U.S. position is not strong. It’s going to be important that the two U.S. pairs at Worlds put out their best performances in March. Again, the Knierims are the obvious choice to lead the World team, assuming they confirm their position at Nationals. It’s the second pair that is the question. With relative parity among teams below the Knierims, my opinion is that USFS should choose whoever finishes highest at Nationals aside from the Knierims–with one caveat. The short program at Worlds is going to be critical (only top 16 advance to LP), and again, the U.S. is in a weak position, with all U.S. teams except the Knierims well below the top 16 on the current ISU season’s-best SP list. Whoever is chosen for the second spot ideally would have proven their ability to score well in the short program, at Nationals or elsewhere (preferably with a score of 65 or close to it).

Four Continents: It’s expected that none of the Olympic team members will compete at Four Continents this year. That being the case, I hope USFS will select the next 3 highest-placing pairs at U.S. Nationals (aside from the Olympic pair) for the Four Continents team. Again, with all the U.S. pairs teams relatively close in scores/results, I don’t see much reason to use criteria other than Nationals results.

Wrap-up

So those are my predictions. I hope all the U.S. teams have their best performances next week at U.S. Nationals! The Olympic-year Nationals always brings an extra layer of excitement, and this year should be no different. Best wishes to all the pairs, and I hope to see a great competition in San Jose!

Note: If you’re enjoying the articles on The Divine Sport, please take a moment to “like” the site’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/adivinesport/. You can also follow me on Twitter to get updates of new posts: @ClaireCloutier.

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