The biggest story at the Russian Figure Skating Championships, of course, was the return of three-time Olympic medalist (and 2006 champ) Evgeni Plushenko. In most other circumstances, the focus would have been on the ladies’ competition, where Russia once again shows its incredible depth with the Sochi Olympics ahead of them. A few thoughts on what Plushenko’s programs from at Russian Nationals tell us.
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WATCH: Plushenko Russian Nationals short program
How does Plushenko look?
Well, he looks pretty damn good. At 29, this is Plushenko’s second comeback – he took three seasons off after winning in Torino in 2006 only to come back for another chance at Olympic gold in Vancouver. Of course, that was the site of the still-contentious Lysacek vs. Plushenko battle. And now, following a season and a half off after Vancouver, Plushenko made his return to Russian Nationals with sights set on a fourth Olympics, this time in his home country.
No, this was not Plushenko at his best – far from it. His short program had some shaky moments and he lost steam in the second half of his free skate. But what he did show is that the technical prowess that made him dominate men’s skating for seven years is still there. Call me crazy, but it seemed to me that, while the quad still looks to be a bit of a work in progress, his triple axel looks stronger than ever.
What is interesting is that he didn’t have all six of the different triples in his free skate, opting to not attempt a flip.
Plushenko’s place amongst the men.
The bigger question, really, is where the Olympic champ fits in amongst the guys this season – and to be sure, the realm of men’s skating this season is vastly different from what it was two years ago when Plushenko competed last.
Judging solely from his two performances this past week, I’d actually say that there is quite a bit of potential. It sounds silly to say that a former Olympic champ “has potential,” but the fact of the matter is, the thing that gave him his dominance was his technical prowess and consistency. The fact that you could pretty much rely on him to hit his quad toe almost anytime while some of the top skaters were struggling to hit triple axels gave him such an edge during the first half of the last decade.
But the men’s field now has caught up to Plushenko’s technical abilities (and in fact, he was very much ahead of his time in the technical consistency department), and some have surpassed him a bit – Patrick Chan now has two quads in his free skate, as does Javier Fernandez. It used to be that technical daredevilness did not necessarily coincide with strong program components (see Tim Goebel and Kevin Van Der Perren) and vice versa (see Jeffrey Buttle and Johnny Weir), but now we have great skaters who are also great jumpers who can consistently land quads.
The intricacy of his two programs is certainly not up to a Chan or a Takahashi or an Abbott, but he is making strides – and I’d say that these two programs, as raw first-timers, are already much stronger than the ones he had in Vancouver. Of course, this is one competition, and his first in quite a while. So the learning curve will have to increase for him to have hopes of regaining that top spot.
The “old dog” learning new tricks.
So back to “potential” – the reason I say that is that he is clearly making an effort to be competitive with the other top skaters in the program components department, as opposed to being stubborn and holding on to his old ways. Of course, he is known for a bit of showboating, and that’s still part of his skating. But he is doing some things that I didn’t expect him to do at all.
The entrances to his jumps are getting shorter – you can see it, in particular, in the second triple axel in his free skate, where he takes it on the long side of the rink with much less preparation than he used to. The preparation for the quad toe is also shorter. And he’s got a more seamless integration of his jumps than he used to have.
His step sequences are also much improved – not just a matter of showboating as they used to be, but good musically-driven steps and a few innovative moves mixed in. And while he’s never going to win a spinning competition, he’s learning new tricks – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do a flying sit before. And again, the point is that he recognizes that he needs to make improvements to be at the top again, and I appreciate that he is making the effort.
Plushenko supporters will no doubt point to the fact that he’s the best skater in the world, and Plushenko detractors will no doubt say that these programs are nothing but jump after jump and a lot of posing. But I’d argue that it’s between those two extremes – if you analyze the programs more closely, it’s quite apparent that Plushenko is exploring new territories for him (the free skate more so than the short).
What will he need to do to win?
There are a few things, though, that are very glaringly against Plushenko right now. I think, for one, he may have a rude awakening at an international event when it comes to program components marks. The judges have gotten used to seeing these intricate programs from the top skaters, and while his programs are an improvement from the much emptier efforts in the past, they aren’t quite yet at the level of the top men.
That said, an overlooked fact is the effortlessness of his skating flow. He may not have the deepest edges or the most powerful strokes, but he really does move well across the ice.
A second glaring disadvantage is the jump layout in his free skate – and of course, this could very well be a matter of stamina currently, but this is the layout that he’s used to having. Putting the highest-scoring elements at the very beginning hurts his base value. Many of the guys will do the second triple axel and a combination with a backend triple in the second half for the 10% bonus. In an environment where the base values are close amongst the top guys, every fraction of a point counts. If I were his coach, I’d start reshuffling the elements once the stamina catches up.
A third disadvantage is the lack of a second quad in his free skate – and, really, that’s a disadvantage to Chan. Chan has two quads and a triple axel, whereas Plushenko at Russian Nationals had one quad and two triple axels – that’s a difference of about two points. Add that to the fact that Plushenko doesn’t yet have eight triples planned in the free skate, and it brings down his base value relative to the other skaters even more.
It’s good to see that Plushenko isn’t waving off the three-jump combination – remember that an extra double loop as he had planned would have outright given him the gold in Vancouver. He and his coaches have to continue to keep in mind that they need to maximize the elements in his programs in order for him to keep up with the top men in the world.
So what does all this mean?
Well, what is smart about his decision to come back two seasons early in anticipation of Sochi is that it gives him time to adjust as needed. But there’s no doubt, Plushenko is back.
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