Ice Network

Cup of China, NHK Trophy class of Grand Prix

Lesser-known skaters will have prime opportunity to step up this season
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Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov will look to build on their Olympic gold medal during this season's Grand Prix Series. -Getty Images

Just over three months ago, the figure skating season came to a close at the world championships after an Olympic year that saw the sport's best take home medals in Sochi.

On Friday, the march toward the Pyeongchang Olympics officially began, with the International Skating Union handing out its Grand Prix assignments for the 2014-15 season -- the first of four in the lead-up to the 2018 Games.

Where should we expect the fiercest competition? Who steps up in the absence of some of the most familiar names? Icenetwork contributor Amy Rosewater helped break down the fields at the respective Grand Prix events.

Icenetwork: What do you see as the toughest Grand Prix event for the ladies?

Amy Rosewater: That would be Cup of China. Watch out for Julia Lipnitskaia, who will want to be strong in her season debut. Elizaveta Tuktamisheva is there as well, as is American Polina Edmunds, who will be making her senior Grand Prix debut. She showed she has little fear at the Olympics, where she was solid.

Icenetwork: It looks like the field in Japan is quite strong, too.

Rosewater: Yes, it'll be tough! Gracie Gold and Edmunds take on Russia's Olympic champion, Adelina Sotnikova, and Japan's Kanako Murakami. I also like Zijun Li of China, who is set to skate both in China and Japan.

Icenetwork: Moving on to the men, where do they have it the hardest?

Rosewater: Skate America is packed, with Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten, world silver medalist Tatsuki Machida, U.S. Olympians Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown and Canada's world junior champ, Nam Nguyen. There is no Yuzuru Hanyu or Javier Fernández, but it's tough, especially as the season opener.

Icenetwork: In pairs, Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are entered in Skate America and Cup of China, which has surprised a few people. Are either of those fields the toughest?

Rosewater: I'd say Trophée Bompard has a tough field with Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov -- Volosozhar and Trankov's compatriots. China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han and Kirsten Moore-Towers, who is skating with new partner Michael Marinaro, will also be there. Americans Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim are also in the field.

Icenetwork: There seems to be a lot of intrigue with ice dance this season.

Rosewater: The dance scene is wide open, which is something usually not uttered in this discipline. Without veterans Meryl Davis and Charlie White or Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir competing this season, look for several teams vying for the top spot. Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are ones to watch, as are Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte.

No Grand Prix will have the drama of Rostelecom Cup, as Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, the Olympic bronze medalists in Sochi, will be competing -- but with new partners. Ilinykh will skate with Ruslan Zhiganshin, and Katsalapov will skate with Victoria Sinitsina. Sinitsina and Katsalapov work with dance guru Marina Zoueva, so fans should expect big things. The press conference should be the best of the Grand Prix circuit!

Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates should also figure in the podium mix. American world junior champs Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker will get quite an introduction to the senior Grand Prix world, but they are ready for the challenge.

Icenetwork: There isn't such a thing as an "easy" field, but where can the singles skaters take advantage this season?

Rosewater: For the ladies, it's Skate Canada. That said, there are some strong women in the field with Russia's Anna Pogorilaya and American Ashley Wagner. Kaetlyn Osmond is the home country favorite and is hoping to rebound from an injury-plagued 2013-14 campaign.

I think for the men it's the Rostelecom Cup. Fernández is the class of this field. American Max Aaron might be able to rival the Spainard in the quad department.

Icenetwork: We're also without big names in singles, like Yu-Na Kim (retired), Patrick Chan, Carolina Kostner and Mao Asada (taking the year off). What are your thoughts on that?

Rosewater: No Chan means Kevin Reynolds and Nguyen will be fighting to be the new Canadian top man. Abbott is back, meaning he is not ready to relinquish his U.S. crown. I love that Sotnikova will be back this season. Too bad we will not have the drama of Yu-Na, and Carolina along with her this season. But, we will have a slew of young Russian women with Lipnitskaia, Elena Radionova and Pogorilaya. For the U.S., Gold was fourth at the Olympics and wants to be a podium finisher at worlds.

And for the U.S. in pairs, Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay are a rock-solid team and the only top American pair returning as a unit this season. (Marissa Castelli is paired with Mervin Tran, and they are awaiting a decision about his competition status. Simon Shnapir is now skating with DeeDee Leng.)

Icenetwork: Looking specifically at Skate America, Jason Brown and Gracie Gold are in the field.

Rosewater: Brown should be thrilled (then again, is he ever not thrilled?!) to be at Skate America, as he should receive tons of support in his hometown of Chicago. Sending Mirai Nagasu to Skate America (and two Grand Prix assignements overall) should take away some of the sting (but not all) from her not making the Olympic team.

Icenetwork: Lastly, pick a breakout star or two. Who do you really expect to step up this season?

Rosewater: Josh Farris could be ready to make his move. He attained great experience with Stars on Ice this summer and seems more at ease with the audience. Hawayek and Baker are breaking into the senior dance scene and have made their presence known already in a short period of time. Weaver and Poje are not new, but can break loose from the long shadow that had been cast by Virtue and Moir.