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Best of the best in men's skating this season

Clear-cut favorite not evident after year of parity

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By Linda Przygodski
(03/28/2008) - It has been a season of unanswered questions in the senior men's division of competitive figure skating.

The biggest debate, who is the best male skater in the world, remains uncertain. At times Daisuke Takahashi, Evan Lysacek, Brian Joubert, Stéphane Lambiel, Johnny Weir and Jeffrey Buttle each executed brilliant programs. Inconsistency, however, was the albatross for most, while quads were the downfall of a few.

Daisuke Takahashi

Takahashi appeared unstoppable after attaining a world-record overall score (under the new judging system), 264.41 points at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February. In Gothenburg, however, he could not close the deal on an otherwise outstanding season. Flubbing the triple Axel in his short program, combined with a so-so free skate, relegated the 22-year-old skater to a fourth-place finish in the closing event of the season.

Quad count: Takahashi was positively scored on five at ISU events. Considering he does not try the jump in his short program, this percentage is quite high, certainly the best among the top men.

Best: Monster short and free programs at Four C's -- at this event, Takahashi was the perfect storm of artistry and athleticism. His short was an interminable assault on the senses, kicking off with a consummate and consecutive array of jumps: triple flip, triple toe, triple Axel, triple Lutz.

Worst: Free skate at worlds. Takahashi received negative Grades of Execution on his second quad combination. He also made a strategic error: after missing a planned combination, he improvised a triple Lutz-double toe, and under the judging system's rules the entire element did not count. This took him off the podium.

Fast facts: Takahashi is the reigning Japanese national champion, but will encounter more domestic competition next season, when former 2005 world junior champion Nobunari Oda returns after taking time off following an embarrassing incident involving driving a moped while slightly intoxicated.

Evan Lysacek

Lysacek's bugaboo all season was that pesky quad, which he included in both his short and long programs. Sometimes he landed it beautifully; sometimes he ate a lot of ice.

He scored his personal-best ISU score at the Four Continents Championships, earning 233.11 (his season-best of 244.77 came at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships), but that was only good enough for the bronze medal. He was beaten by Takahashi both times he faced him this season, and an injury shortly before worlds prevented him from getting any kind of vindication against the Japanese champ.

Skating wasn't the word most associated with Lysacek all year: rivalry was. The Evan vs. Johnny show took center stage much of the season, much to the vexation of both its stars. Instead of talking stats, figure skating fans seemed more interested in debating what it means to have machismo. Articles pitting Lysacek's sweat pants over Weir's sequins skewed skating off-topic, setting in opposition two men as different as wine and water. Kudos to Lysacek for side-stepping rapacious reporters' needy requests to pigeon-hole Weir into some understandable mold: the always politically correct Californian, well, he just wouldn't go there.

In Lysacek and Weir's two head-to-head meetings on the Grand Prix Series, each American placed higher than the other once, (Cup of China: Weir, first, Lysacek second; ISU Grand Prix Final: Lysacek, third, Weir, fourth) but at their biggest event of the season -- the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships -- they tied. Lysacek wound up being crowned the champion due to a provision stating that the winner of the free skate emerges victorious overall. But Weir's bronze medal at worlds opened the debate of what could have been had Lysacek not injured himself during a practice session.

Quad count: Lysacek was positively scored for four quads at ISU events. In addition, he grabbed 11.14 out of 13.00 for his quad-triple toe combo at the U.S. championships.

Best: A substantial, gutsy free skate at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in which he fought to save several jumps. Despite two-footing his quad and having admittedly stiff landings on both of his triple Axels, sheer willpower kept him on his feet.

Worst: Due to a practice injury, Lysacek was forced to watch worlds from the comfort of his couch.

Fast facts: Two-time and reigning U.S. national champion.

Johnny Weir

Weir doesn't need the U.S. championship to know he had a career-defining year. Lysacek can have the title, the adoration and the applause. Weir will take the pride in knowing his 2007-08 season has put him right back where he needs to be.

Weir managed to do something this season Lysacek was not capable of: stop the juggernaut of Takahashi, staving off the Japanese star at worlds and grabbing the United States' only medal at the event.

He also managed to defeat the one person who has put the most hindrance on his career, himself.

There were no disastrous performances, no histrionics. With wins at the Cup of Russia, and the Cup of China and a world bronze medal, Weir finally proved that in demanding circumstances, U.S. Figure Skating can count on him to shoulder his share of the burden.

All season long, he established he can stand up to his critics and to the pressure, without falling down on the ice. Ever-effervescent, he kept his humor and trademark 'Weiricisms,' even in the face of striking narrow-mindedness, all while wearing nothing but a smile and a "sparkling onesie."

Quad count: Weir only attempted two quads this season. At the U.S. Championships, he received 7.71 out of a possible 9.00 after he two-footed the landing. His quad at worlds was downgraded to a two-footed triple and garnered just 1.57 points.

Best: A gorgeous short program at worlds earned him a personal and season-best (ISU) score of 80.79 and vaulted him past the 'quad-squad.' Ultimately, this strong short secured his first world medal of any color.

Worst: Letting Lysacek know he didn't like him as a person - on national television.

Fast facts: Earned second place at his national championships, after placing third last season and winning it all from 2004-2006.

Brian Joubert

Joubert is currently the top-ranked male skater in the world, but his season was uneven at best. Although he won Skate Canada, his free skate was disappointing. He missed his home court Grand Prix assignment, the Trophée Eric Bompard, after contracting a muscle virus. As a result, he was unable to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. After defending his French national title, he just eked out a bronze at 2008 European Championships but placed just fourth in the free skate.

Quad count: Four positively scored at his three ISU events, low for him.

Best: His rousing free skate at worlds. After a season of difficulties, Joubert's comeback looked grim after an uncharacteristic fall on a triple Lutz in his short program in Sweden. The Frenchman gathered himself, however, and performed a near-flawless free to leapfrog from sixth place to silver, leaving him just shy of defending his title.

Worst: Telling the media in Sweden, before anyone had skated, that only he, Stéphane Lambiel and Daisuke Takahashi had a shot at winning the title. We hope he's learned a lesson about knocking on wood.

Fast facts: French national champion; his bronze medal at the 2008 European Championships was his seventh podium finish at that event in seven tries, including two victories.

Stéphane Lambiel

Lambiel had the definitive up-and-down season. A powerful Flamenco free program assisted the Swiss skater in most of his podium finishes, but his skating, at times, was as capricious as his off-ice remarks.

He finished third behind Weir and Lysacek at the Cup of China and second behind Weir at the Cup of Russia. An unblemished short and free in Turin scored him the win at the Grand Prix Final. He placed second at Europeans after some near-scandalous marks in the short program, where he executed just a triple toe-double toe combination, double Axel, and triple Lutz -- about the technical content of a top U.S. novice lady.

Best: Tie: A gold-medal skate at the Grand Prix Final, and coining a new figure skating idiom: "crashy" ice (at worlds).

Worst: Being unable to skate on the "crashy" ice in Sweden, and also whining about his blades. Multiple mistakes in his short and long programs were a far cry from his seamless skates at the GPF.

Quad count: Two positively scored at ISU sanctioned events; without a triple Axel, simply not enough.

Fast facts: Swiss national champion, finished second at Europeans.

Jeffrey Buttle

Buttle proved this season to never count out the little guy. Sure, he lost his national title to Patrick Chan, he doesn't have a quad in either of his programs, and prior to worlds his best finish was second at Four Continents, but that doesn't mean he's going to tolerate Joubert dismissing him as a quad-less wuss.

Maybe Joubert's comments stirred the Canadian; he and Weir were both dismissed as possible contenders for the crown by France's national skating treasure, who was forced to eat his words.

Quad count: Zilch. Buttle put an exclamation on the argument that artistry is still what counts in skating, not how many quads you can squeeze into four minutes.

Best: Unflappable performances in Sweden. Spot on.

Worst: He collapsed like a flan in a cupboard at Skate Canada. Buttle doubled three planned triples -- a Salchow, flip and his second Axel. He fell on his last jump, a triple Lutz, to score just 131.92 for his free skate and 198.77 overall. In comparison, Buttle's season-best score was 245.17 at worlds.

Fast facts: The three-time Canadian champ lost his national crown this year, finishing second at Canadians to the 17-year-old Chan.