It's a packed field in the men's event at this week's 2013 Hilton HHonors Skate America. Six of the nine skaters represent either the home team or Japan, with the surprise of last season looking to make some early-season noise.
Some may be wondering where the tenth skater in the field went. It was announced this week that Brian Joubert, originally slated to compete, was withdrawn from the competition by the French Federation because he opted to not compete at the French Masters event two weeks ago.
UPDATE (10/16): Denis Ten is also out of the competition.
GOLD Max Aaron USA - Crazy? Maybe. But what sets the U.S. champ apart from the rest of the competition is the fact that he's got reliable quads. And the sheer value of his two programs may very well be the game-changer against the more experienced veterans from Japan.
The key for Aaron is to be in contention after the short program, which, with only three jump elements, is an equalizer. What he lacks in program components he can more than make up with the extraordinary difficulty of his free skate - three quads, two triple axels, and five other triples. It's certainly risky, but it could pay oh so many dividends.
SILVER Takahiko Kozuka JPN - I'll refrain from writing about his new free skate costume. But the program we saw from Kozuka at Japan Open two weeks ago was pretty nice, including a solid quad toe, which has always been a bit on and off for him. With the exception of a singled triple axel, he really got his season off to a great start. He's won this competition twice, including last year, so you better believe he can do it again.
BRONZE Daisuke Takahashi JPN - Where is the reigning Olympic bronze medalist right now in his preparations for Sochi? Japan Open was not so hot for him. The quad seemed in ok early-season shape, but his usually-trusty triple axel abandoned him for sure.
If last season was any indication, though, his performance at one competition has very little to do with his performance at the next. Given two strong performances, it's easy to see him with another Grand Prix title at the end of the week, which would be his ninth. But I, for one, am very much looking forward to the competition debut of his short program.
4. Denis Ten KAZ - The World silver medalist has all sorts of question marks surrounding him this week. Was his Worlds performance a once-in-a-lifetime event? Will his former inconsistency show up? How prepared is he this early in the season? One thing's for sure - his World medal will give him a well-deserved PCS boost from years past. But it remains to be seen how his first competition since Worlds will be. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him in first, nor would it be a surprise to see him way out of the medals.
5. Jason Brown USA - A silver medal behind Nobunari Oda at Nebelhorn in his senior international debut was not bad at all. He got the call for Skate America after Evan Lysacek withdrew two weeks ago, and he has certainly had a decent amount of time to properly prepare. Brown will have an outside shot at the podium, especially now that the triple axel is no longer the ridiculously tall obstacle that it used to be for him. But the lack of a planned quad will make it tough for him to be up there without the top guys making a few mistakes.
6. Tatsuki Machida JPN - The surprise Grand Prix Finalist last season, Machida's trajectory went way south after that - ninth at Japanese Nationals was certainly not where he was hoping to find himself. Was it a confidence buster or has he recovered from it?
7. Adam Rippon USA - In his sixth season on the Grand Prix, Rippon is now a full-on veteran. The question, though, is always centered on his jumps. He made technique adjustments to his triple axel that seemed to be working, but it didn't quite get enough competition-time last season. And then there's the quad - quad salchow? Quad lutz? Inconsistency will drop him, but if he can put it together, a medal is very much within reach.
8. Artur Gachinski RUS - The former World bronze medalist pulled up from a poor short with a solid free skate to finish with the bronze at Finlandia. But there is definitely a pink elephant in Gachinski's season - one Sochi berth for the Russian men and a guy named Evgeni Plushenko still in the mix. Where his mindset is will have a big impact on where he finishes this week.
9. Alexander Majorov SWE - Sixth at Europeans last season, Majorov has certainly been making steady improvements. But in a field like this, it'll be tough for him to be anywhere higher than eighth or ninth.