2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Junior Men

There’s Krasnozhon and his quad loop, and then there’s a heck of a fight for silver.

The 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships are fast approaching, and it’s time for a preview of my favorite discipline, men’s singles. This season’s 13-man line-up has a clear front runner in Alex Krasnozhon, but it’s open season for the rest of the podium, with lots of young talent and big personalities in contention. This field guide provides basic information on each skater, a summary of their seasons so far, and my thoughts on how they’re likely to do at Nationals. For an explanation of the four-point scale I’m using to describe where each skater stands, and more information on my field guides in general, go read my Junior Ladies’ Field Guide first.

Ryan Dunk

The Basics: Dunk is 16 years old and trains with Christian Conte in Maryland. He’s a member of the Baltimore Figure Skating Club.

Season So Far: Dunk made the rounds of the summer club competitions, sometimes as the only entry, refining his programs and getting feedback from judges. At the Philadelphia Summer Championships, he won the short program but struggled with multiple falls in the free skate. He went on to win the Chesapeake Open, again largely on the strength of his short program. After breezing through the two-man field at South Atlantic Regionals, Dunk faced stiffer competition at Eastern Sectionals and excelled. He won the short program, then held steady in the free skate for a 2nd-place overall finish.

Outlook for Nationals: Dunk’s greatest strengths lie in his non-jump elements. At Sectionals, he earned level 4’s on all of his spins in both programs, a rare accomplishment for a junior man. He’s also a smooth and musical skater with lovely lines and extension, attributes that raise his components scores. He does have some trouble with his jump technique; he’s capable of a triple lutz-triple toe loop but often lands too far forward on the lutz to complete a second triple jump. Dunk hasn’t yet competed a triple Axel, either, although the first jumping pass in his free skate looks like a placeholder for an upgrade. If he takes that risk, and it pays off, he might sneak onto the podium, as he did last year with a 4th-place finish at the novice level. That potential makes him a skater On the Rise.

Mathew Graham

The Basics: Graham is 19 years old and comes from Shelley, ID. He’s still a member of the Idaho Falls Figure Skating Club, but he now trains in Ogden, UT, with Amanda Kovar.

Season So Far: Graham’s only summer competition was the U.S. Junior Challenge Skate, and he made a substantial statement there, placing 2nd ahead of several of the skaters he’d face again in his qualifying competitions. He won Northwest Pacific Regionals effortlessly, then went on to perform a pair of confident, engaging programs at Pacific Coast Sectionals. Graham not only qualified to Nationals for the first time in four years, but won a silver medal.

Outlook for Nationals: With no triple-triple combination or triple Axel, Graham doesn’t look like a strong podium contender. But he’s been beating skaters with higher base values all season, and he recently told a local newspaper that he might give the triple Axel a shot at Nationals. More important than any of that, however, is Graham’s theatricality – he’s the kind of performer who wins fans over regardless of his placement. It sounds like he’s most excited about performing for the crowd, and it’s hard to argue with a skater who sounds like he feels happy just to have qualified. But with the big score he earned at Sectionals, I’d say he’s On the Rise.

William Hubbart

The Basics: Hubbart is 18 years old and a member of the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club. His primary coach is Jim Peterson.

Season So Far: Hubbart was often the only junior men’s competitor at the summer meets he entered, gaining experience at the Orange Blossom Open, Miami Open, and Southwest Florida Fall Classic. Facing stronger competition at Skate Detroit, he placed 4th, the highest placement by an American junior man at the event. (Canadians swept the podium.) At the Cranberry Open, he beat Krasnozhon in the short program; although he fell behind in the free skate, he posted a great score. Those results, plus a strong showing in novice at last year’s Nationals, earned Hubbart a Junior Grand Prix assignment, in Ljubljana, where he recovered from a shaky short program to place 9th overall. At Eastern Sectionals, he landed every jump in his free skate cleanly on his way to a gold medal.

Outlook for Nationals: It’s clear from his busy competition schedule – and his steadily escalating scores – that Hubbart is not messing around this season. He hasn’t competed a triple Axel yet, although there’s space for one at the top of each of his programs. That, along with his high and consistent triple flip-triple toe loop, would make him a plausible long shot for gold. Even without the triple Axel, he has a decent chance at the podium, especially since his pair of Broadway-themed programs bring out his best artistic qualities. With the season he’s been having, Hubbart is very much a Dark Horse in this race.

Alexei Krasnozhon

The Basics: Krasnozhon is 16 years old and trains with Peter and Darlene Cain. He’s a member of the Dallas Figure Skating Club.

Season So Far: Oh, what a season it’s been for this Russian-Texan teenager. He premiered his programs, uncontested, at Skate Dallas and the Cannon Texas Open. Then, at the Broadmoor Open, he unveiled his new weapon, a quadruple loop; it was underrotated, but he landed it, on his way to a dominant win. Krasnozhon stumbled at the Cranberry Open but pulled off an overall win with a strong free skate. He fell on that quad loop at Junior Grand Prix Ostrava, but everything else was stellar enough for silver. A few weeks later, at Junior Grand Prix Ljubljana, he fought to hang onto his signature jump, a triumph that brought him the only American men’s JGP gold medal of the season. With those two medals, Krasnozhon qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final – the only American man to do so. The pressure seemed to get to him there, and he finished 5th.

Outlook for Nationals: Krasnozhon is the only man in this year’s junior men’s field planning a quadruple jump of any kind, and one of the few who can guarantee a triple Axel. That alone makes him nearly a shoo-in for gold – but not quite. He was heavily favored to win a junior title last year, only to fall apart in the free skate and settle for 3rd. He’s been much more consistent this season, but his problems at the Junior Grand Prix Final were a reminder that he still sometimes struggles to maintain his focus. His biggest forward strides this season were in his skating skills and performance quality, improvements that should bolster his components score (and, in his Rodeo free skate, give the audience a laugh or two). There’s an outside shot that Krasnozhon will lose his cool, but even with a few mistakes, he has enough of a technical advantage that he’s far and away the Front Runner here.

Kelvin Li

The Basics: Li is 17 years old and a member of the Northern Ice Skating Club in suburban Chicago. His primary coach is Alex Ouriashev.

Season So Far: Li made a confident season debut as the lone junior men’s entrant at Skate Milwaukee. He went on to the larger stage at Skate Detroit, where he struggled, placing 7th. He rebounded later, with confident wins at the DuPage Open and Greater Chicagoland Invitational. That momentum carried him to a terrific performance at Midwestern Sectionals, where he landed every jump and earned a silver medal.

Outlook for Nationals: Like most of the field, Li doesn’t yet compete a triple Axel. In his free skate, he raises his difficulty by saving some of his harder jumps for the second half, and he has a beautiful triple flip-triple toe loop combination. He also has a lovely, balletic skating style and draws a surprising amount of emotion from his offbeat Philip Glass free skate music. Without top-level jumps, he’ll have a hard time reaching the podium, but if he shows the same grace under pressure that he did at Sectionals, he’s On the Rise.

Peter Liu

The Basics: Liu is 16 years old and trains with Viktor Pfeifer. Originally from the Pennsylvania side of the Philadelphia area, Liu represents the Skating Club of Wilmington in Delaware.

Season So Far: After a smashing second-place finish at the novice level at 2016 Nationals, Liu worked hard to establish himself as a junior this season. He began by winning the free skate at the Philadelphia Summer Championships, posting the highest overall score. He came in second to Dunk at the Chesapeake Open and posted a solid score as the lone junior man at Skate Wilmington. At Junior Grand Prix Dresden, Liu attempted a triple Axel in both programs and fell both times; the errors seemed to throw off his momentum in general, and he placed only 16th. That triple Axel failed him again in the short program at Eastern Sectionals, and he wisely took it out of his free skate. Without his hardest jump, Liu set a new personal best free skate score and finished a comfortable, if disappointing, third.

Outlook for Nationals: Judging from Liu’s season so far – and his struggles to upgrade technically – the numbers don’t look good. But skaters are more than numbers, and it’s wise to remember that the reigning junior champion, Tomoki Hiwatashi, had never landed a triple Axel before the Nationals that he won. Liu isn’t at Hiwatashi’s level in terms of well-roundedness or stamina. But if that jump shows up for him when it counts, he could have one heck of a Nationals. Until it does, however, Liu is On the Rise.

Sasha Lunin

The Basics: Lunin is 15 years old and a member of the Fort Wayne Ice Skating Club in Indiana. He’s coached by his parents, Alexander and Alena Lunin, who met while competing in figure skating for Russia.

Season So Far: Lunin placed a solid 5th in his junior debut at Skate Detroit. That was his only significant meet until Midwestern Sectionals, where he struggled with his triple-triple combinations but stayed on his feet, doing just enough for a 4th-place finish and a trip to Nationals.

Outlook for Nationals: Lunin qualified for Nationals by the skin of his teeth, but his technical potential greatly exceeds his performance there. If he can keep his triple-triples and his focus steady, he could climb into the middle of the ranks – but probably not much further. I wonder if, in retrospect, he might have benefited from one more year as a novice before moving up, since he looks like he’ll be a whole different skater with another year of experience under his belt. As it is, I think this will be a growth year for Lunin, and he’ll have the best results if he’s Just Happy to Be Here.

TJ Nyman

The Basics: Nyman is 16 years old and a member of the Space Coast Ice Plex Figure Skating Club in central Florida. His mother, Katie Nyman, is his primary coach.

Season So Far: Nyman has had a rough season, struggling with upgraded jumps that he has trouble rotating and landing consistently. He premiered his short program at the Philadelphia Summer Championships, only to place last of 5 in the segment. At the U. S. Junior Challenge Skate, he did a bit better, placing sixth. He looked solid in his short program at Eastern Sectionals, with a clean skate, but he had a nightmare of a free skate, falling three times. He placed 4th overall, lucky to be in a four-man field there.

Outlook for Nationals: Nyman excelled at the lower levels, winning back-to-back National titles at the juvenile and intermediate levels in 2014 and 2015. As he’s moved up to novice and now junior, he’s had trouble keeping pace with the increasing technical demands. At Sectionals, he planned triple Axels in both of his programs but did not attempt them. If he has one ready, he might pull off a big surprise. Even if he has January upgrades in store, he’ll benefit from a Just Happy to Be Here attitude after the season he’s had.

Camden Pulkinen

The Basics: Pulkinen is 16 years old and an Arizona native. He trains in Colorado Springs with Tom Zakrajsek and is a member of the Broadmoor Skating Club.

Season So Far: Pulkinen’s breakthrough junior season really began last spring, when he represented the United States at the Youth Olympic Games and placed a respectable 7th against a number of more experienced athletes. He earned an impressive, unexpected bronze against a deep field at the Broadmoor Open, losing only to a couple of guys with quads, and had similar success at the Glacier Falls Classic, winning another hotly contested bronze. But everything really fell into place at the U. S. Junior Challenge Skate, where he beat his prior personal best score by 12 points and won the gold medal. The greater pressure at Junior Grand Prix Estonia brought Pulkinen back down to earth, although he landed a peach of a triple Axel in his free skate for an overall 9th place finish. Pulkinen was far from his best at Midwestern Sectionals, with significant errors in both programs, but he still pulled off a commanding win.

Outlook for Nationals: Pulkinen is on a hot streak, and it’s hard to say how far he can go, especially if he keeps his landing leg under him. His jump technique is gorgeous, especially on that triple Axel, and his technical content is some of the most difficult in this year’s junior field. In addition, he’s growing into a well-rounded skater, with fast, deep edges and an expressive performance style. I doubt Pulkinen has quite enough in the tank to win this season, but he’s a serious medal contender – a big upgrade from his 11th-place finish last year. He’s transformed himself into a Dark Horse.

Daniil Shamis

The Basics: Shamis is 15 years old and a member of the All Year Figure Skating Club in the Los Angeles area. His primary coach is Tammy Gambill.

Season So Far: Shamis refined his programs at a number of club competitions, with scores that rose steadily throughout the summer. He began with a silver medal at the L.A. Open, including a terrific, clean short program. At the Glacier Falls Classic, he posted similar scores, but the deeper field meant his efforts were only good enough for 7th place. He won the Golden West Championships in a field of two, then earned his best score of the summer as the only entry at the Pasadena Open. With only two skaters entered at Southwest Pacific Regionals, Shamis won handily, but he really rose to the occasion at Pacific Coast Sectionals. He stayed on his feet, made no major errors, and punched his ticket to Nationals with a 4th-place finish.

Outlook for Nationals: Shamis isn’t exactly a technical powerhouse: his most difficult jump combination is a triple toe loop-triple toe loop, and he didn’t try it in the free skate at Sectionals. He also takes a hit on program components, with simple choreography and performance style relative to many of his competitors’. What Shamis does have, however, is an ability to develop through a season and peak at the right time. He’s not quite in the conversation this year, but he’s moving in the right direction and On the Rise.

Eric Sjoberg

The Basics: Sjoberg is 15 years old and originally from Maryland. He now trains in California with Rafael Arutunian and represents the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club.

Season So Far: Sjoberg began the season with high expectations, having won 2016 Nationals at the novice level with a lights-out free skate. He kicked things off with a win at the L.A. Open, then took silver in a deep field at the Glacier Falls Classic. From there, Sjoberg headed to Junior Grand Prix Saransk, where he suffered big deductions for underrotation and struggled with his triple lutz-triple toe loop combination but nonetheless pulled off a respectable 7th-place finish. Sjoberg was spectacular at Pacific Coast Sectionals, switching to a more secure triple flip-triple toe loop and earning the highest overall score of any junior man in a Sectional Championships.

Outlook for Nationals: There is one thing holding Sjoberg back, and that thing is a triple Axel. Other than that – and the dodgy lutz combination that he might need to keep on the shelf forever – Sjoberg is the full package and has huge promise for the future. His elegant lines and full-body movement, as well as thoughtfully choreographed transitions, earn him high components scores. He earned straight level 4’s on the spins and steps in his Sectionals free skate. But he’s made significant mistakes this season at even the competitions where he’s skated well, and without the big-ticket jumps, he won’t be able to afford that leeway at Nationals. Sjoberg is definitely a Dark Horse, and if he skates as clean this year as he did last year, he might pull off an upset.

Derek Wagner

The Basics: Wagner is 17 years old and a member of the Northern Ice Skating Club in the Chicago suburbs. His coach is Denise Myers. He’s not related to Ashley Wagner.

Season So Far: Wagner started his summer club competition tour with a disappointing result, near the bottom of the standings at Skate Detroit, in 13th place. His scores climbed at smaller events like the DuPage Open and Greater Chicagoland Invitational, although he found himself in second place behind Kelvin Li at both. Things looked way up for Wagner at Midwestern Sectionals, though: he landed every jump in his free skate, including an impressive triple toe loop-half loop-double flip near the end, and set a new personal best score. He won a bronze medal and a dose of confidence to carry him to Nationals.

Outlook for Nationals: There are a lot of reasons to suspect Wagner will peak at Nationals, starting with the consistent upward trajectory of his scores throughout the season. He hasn’t competed a triple-triple combination so far, let alone a triple Axel, but that might change. He’d planned a triple lutz-triple toe loop in his short program at Sectionals, and he might debut that upgrade at Nationals. He also does a great job of using his long limbs to generate speed and make pleasing shapes on the ice. It’s unlikely he’ll have the base technical value to challenge the podium, but with the progress he’s made over the course of the year, he’s On the Rise.

Kendrick Weston

The Basics: Weston is 16 years old and represents Salt Lake Figure Skating. His coach is Lisa Kriley.

Season So Far: Weston tested his programs as the only junior men’s competitor at the Copper Cup, earning a promising score. Unfortunately, he had more trouble under pressure at the U.S. Junior Challenge Skate, placing a distant 7th out of 7 after winning the same event in 2015. At Central Pacific Regionals, however, he rebounded with a strong short program and a silver medal. But Weston saved his best for when it really mattered, at Pacific Coast Sectionals, skating back to back clean programs and beating his prior personal best score by over 20 points.

Outlook for Nationals: Things are getting repetitive here at the end of the field guide, but Weston is yet another skater who has improved steadily throughout the season and looks to be peaking at the right time. He’s also another skater who might find himself outclassed technically unless he brings some upgrades to Kansas City: he didn’t compete a triple-triple combination at Sectionals. What he does have is strong technique – the entry edge on his triple lutz is consistently perfect – and a nuanced performance style with lots of attention to detail. Like many of the athletes he’ll face next week, he’s On the Rise.

The junior men’s competition begins on Wednesday, January 18, at 8:30 AM CST, and concludes with the free skate at 1:30 PM on Friday, January 20. It will be streamed live on IceNetwork.

Next up on The Finer Sports: the junior ice dance field guide.

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