Florent Amodio (France)
Born in Brazil and adopted as an infant by a French couple, Amodio recently won the French Masters competition, beating far more experienced and acclaimed skaters such as Brian Joubert, Yannick Ponsero, and Alban Preaubert. At 19-years-of-age, Amodio has commendable talent, but his inexperience has shown through for him at several competitions, including at last season's World Junior Championships, where he placed 15th. This low finish was especially surprising, considering that it came shortly after his victory at the Junior Grand Prix Final, and his 2nd place finish at French nationals. His silver medal did not grant him a world team berth, however, because Brian Joubert withdrew from that competition. Fortunately, Amodio was granted the experience of competing at the World Team Trophy directly after worlds, where he placed 10th in the men's competition. While Amodio's recent defeating of Joubert at French Masters is doubtful to mean that he will suddenly start besting Joubert every competition out, his win there is impressive nonetheless, largely because of the great room for improvement he had in both of his programs. Amodio did attempt a quad salchow (which appeared rotated, but had a fall) during his free skate at French Masters and his slight, lean build enables him to rotate jumps with little to no effort at all. Amodio has a tough task at hand to get the second ticket on the French men's team, but he has already gotten his season off on a satisfactory note. A solid placement here at his first senior Grand Prix event (preferably in the top five) will win him further respect from the French judges who will help decide his Olympic dream, particularly after compatriots Ponsero and Preaubert (especially the latter) had weak outings at Trophée Eric Bompard.
Takahiko Kozuka (Japan)
Kozuka was one of the men who experienced a breakthrough season last year, but said season concluded on a fairly sour note. Kozuka shocked many by defeating both Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek at last year's Skate America and went on to win the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final, but he finished over 13 points shy of making the podium at worlds, and he also finished behind less talanted skaters such as Vaughn Chipeur and Sergei Voronov at the World Team Trophy, where he placed 8th. Kozuka is blessed with some of the softest knees and securest edges in the world, but his expression is nearly non-existent, and he has yet to land a quadruple toe loop in competition. The judges were rallying to Kozuka's support in the early part of last season, with them giving him higher PCS marks than those of Johnny Weir's at the Grand Prix Final for both programs. As soon as Patrick Chan and Evan Lysacek improved significantly for the Four Continents Championships, the judges' interest in Kozuka appeared to wain and his PCS marks dropped at that competition and at the World Championships despite executing similar skates. Kozuka is immensely talented, but is a darkhorse medal threat for the Olympic podium at best. His competition in Los Angeles was far less than what it will be in Vancouver, and yet he still finished three places off the podium. As far as this event is concerned, Kozuka is doubtful to win with the return of reigning Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko on his home turf. However, Kozuka is entirely capable of finishing 2nd. His main rival for that placement is Johnny Weir, who Kozuka defeated at two competitions last season. With Nobunari Oda's win at Trophée Eric Bompard, and Daisuke Takahashi's victory at the Finlandia Trophy, Kozuka seems destined to enter the Olympic Games as the third ranked Japanese team member, and will thus have to wait longer before he is truly in contention for a world championship or Olympic medal.
Brandon Mroz (USA)
Mroz was another skater who enjoyed a breakthrough season last year, shocking a plethora of observers to win the silver medal at the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships with two technically sound programs. The 18-year-old St. Louis native went on to finish 9th at his first World Championships, doing just enough to help Evan Lysacek claim three berths for the United States men at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Mroz is under the tutelage of Tom Zakrajsek, who formerly coached one of Mroz's top rivals in the United States, Jeremy Abbott. Now that Abbott has relocated to Michigan to train under Yuka Sato, Mroz could improve his skating over the next year with him likely to receive more attention from his coach. Although a very consistent short program skater, the reigning U.S. silver medalist has yet to recapture his performance in the long program at nationals at any other competition. Mroz may need such a performance to make the Olympic team, as he only beat Evan Lysacek, with a shaky long program, by less than a point in Cleveland. The gap between Mroz's skating technically and artistically is quite sizable, and it will be a necessity for him to develop a more mature presentation for this Olympic season. Mroz has stated that he wishes to learn a quadruple salchow and upgrade to a quad-triple combination for his short. These are both quite ambitious plans, if he chooses to follow through with them, because his quad toe was landed only one time out of five competitions last season. No longer an unknown, Mroz must not rely on an optimum result at just one competition to get himself a ticket to Vancouver.
Evgeni Plushenko (Russia)
The much-anticipated return to major international competition from the Olympic and three-time world champion has finally arrived. Plushenko has been out of competition ever since winning his 2006 Olympic gold medal, and cited his reason to comeback to the current weakness of men's figure skating in Russia. The announcement of his comeback has some fans in ecstacy and others (perhaps far more) in anguish, but the Russian seems determined to make this comeback a strong one and will settle for nothing less than a second Olympic gold. Nonetheless, his programs of which he revealed at the recent Cup of Russia in Perm defied the limits of boredom, particularly his long program to "Tengo Amore" by Edvin Marton (shown in the above video). Plushenko's jumps are looking very solid, however, and the mere fact that he has a quad in his arsenal should boost his PCS scores. Brian Joubert was wrong to claim that the quad is not valued high enough; while it may not be rewarded justly on the technical score, it is often rewarded on the program component score (particularly when the skater is well-known), as has been the case in the past for Plushenko. Joubert certainly didn't beat Jeffrey Buttle's PCS score during the long program of 2008 worlds for his comparatively inferior expression and edge quality. Plushenko received high PCS marks through the roof at the 2006 Olympics for stylistically bland programs, and while one hopes that the judges will judge him more strictly after his time away from competition, such an instance cannot be guaranteed.
Shawn Sawyer (Canada)
An exceptionally limber skater, the 24-year-old Canadian finished 5th at both of his Grand Prix events last season, winning the long program at Skate Canada with a score of 142.36. The string of fifth-place finishes continued for Sawyer, as he unfortunately finished two placements at Canadian nationals from what would have qualified him to the 2009 world championship team. Now that Canada has only two Olympic spots available for the men, the three-time Canadian bronze medalist has a tough battle in order for securing the second spot on the Olympic team. Conquering his nemesis, the triple axel, would help his prospects of competing at a second Olympic Games significantly. Grand Prix results didn't seem to have much of an impact on the results of Canadian nationals last year, as Shawn Sawyer had stronger showings at his events than Vaughn Chipeur did, but Chipeur wound up beating Sawyer by three places at Canadians. Chipeur, who after last season seemed like the best bet for the second Olympic spot, just recently finished last at Trophée Eric Bompard. Sawyer did peak too early in the season as last year, as Chipeur did not, and that was what made the difference when it came to who was chosen to compete in Los Angeles. Ultimately, a strong showing from Sawyer here may not be the greatest indication that he will compete in Vancouver.
Kevin Van Der Perren (Belgium)
The two-time European bronze medalist is not realistically in the Olympic medal hunt, but wishes to step back onto the ice on the right track after a disappointing 14th place finish at the 2009 World Championships. So far he has not done so, falling to 12th at the recent Finlandia Trophy. Van Der Perren has already competed in two previous Olympics, placing 12th in 2002 and 9th in 2006. His highest finish at a World Championships was a 6th place showing in 2008, scoring the third highest free skate score of the competition. At his peak, Van Der Perren is an excellent jumper capable of landing quadruple toe loops and triple-triple-triple combinations. Unfortunately, he lacks the superior line and complex choreography of the other top men and thus often receives less than desirable program component scores (even when his jumps are solid). Although Van Der Perren is unlikely to qualify to the Grand Prix Final and would not risk his Olympic spot by performing poorly here, he does wish to perform well to gain prize money to support both he and his wife's training (Jenna McCorkell is his wife, who will be competing in Moscow). At 27 years of age, it remains very probable that this will be Van Der Perren's last season competing.
Johnny Weir (USA)
Last season started off decently for the three-time U.S. Champion, but concluded bitterly with a fifth place finish at the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, a competition which came after a severe illness he had contracted while skating in Japan and South Korea. U.S. Figure Skating showed no mercy to Weir in their selection for the world championship team, leaving him off of both that team and the Four Continents team. Although he has not actually competed in a major event since January, Weir did show his long program at the MidAtlantics last month, and performed his new short program at the recent "Stars, Stripes, and Skates" show in Connecticut. Weir only marked slightly above a 129 for his long program at MidAtlantics, where he apparently left out his footwork and some of his transitions because of the small size of the rink. His second triple axel was downgraded to a double (an extremely rare occurence for him), and he doubled his lutz (also a rare occurence). He encountered similar errors at the show, double footing and slightly under rotating his triple axel, and putting his hand down on his triple lutz. Weir trains on an Olympic-sized rink and appeared to have trouble adjusting to smaller ice surfaces, but Nobunari Oda still managed to land eight clean triples whilst debuting his Charlie Chaplin themed long program on the same rink. Much like Brian Joubert, how Johnny Weir's first event of the season goes generally showcases in some form how he will do later on in the season. In 2007, a brilliant showing at Cup of China led to a world bronze medal. In 2006, one of the weakest long programs of his career at Skate Canada led to a third place finish at nationals and an eighth place finish at worlds. Thus, one should be able to determine much based on Johnny Weir's performances at this competition alone.
Gold: Evgeni Plushenko (Russia)
Silver: Takahiko Kozuka (Japan)
Bronze: Johnny Weir (USA)4th: Brandon Mroz (USA)
5th: Florent Amodio (France)
6th: Shawn Sawyer (Canada)
That is all.