I love the Grand Prix Final. It's our only chance to see all of figure skating's top athletes go head-to-head before the world championships in March.
And for Canadian fans, this week's event in Marseille, France is confirmation that the sport is in full flight in this country. For the first time ever, Canada has qualified entries in all four disciplines.
For those who are new to the event, the Grand Prix Final is reserved for the top six skaters in each category, based on the results from this season's six Grand Prix stops. (CBCSports.ca is live streaming every short and free program at the Final, beginning with the pairs' event Thursday at 1:45 p.m. ET.)
Osmond vs. the Russians
Kaetlyn Osmond will represent Canada in the women's category, an event that hasn't had a Canadian in it since Joannie Rochette appeared in the 2009-10 season.
Former Olympic pairs champion David Pelletier has said that he thinks Kaetlyn has the potential to be on the podium at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. I agree, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Baby steps. Though she placed second at both Skate Canada and the Cup of China, Osmond needs to demonstrate the calmness under extraordinary pressure that is required not only at the Olympics but the Grand Prix Final as well.
Four Russians are among the group trying to block Kaetlyn from the podium. They're led by world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, whose freaky consistency has earned her gold medals in every outing except one over the last two years (and she still got the silver in that one).
Osmond could turn in a podium finish in Marseille. If she does, that will put her on the fast track for final-flight status at worlds.
I wish the men's event was as easy to break down. The top three — two-time and current world champion Javier Fernandez, 2014 Olympic gold medallist Yuzuru Hanyu and three-time world champ Patrick Chan — could all take the title.
Chan is the veteran with seven appearances at the Grand Prix Final since 2007. That includes a victory in the 2011 event in Quebec City, where he, Fernandez and Hanyu met for the first of their three matchups at this event.
Both Chan and Hanyu have won two Grand Prix Final titles, while Fernandez has topped out with a pair of second-place finishes.
The ISU ranks Fernandez and Chan ahead of Hanyu going into the Final after the Spaniard and the Canadian both won their two Grand Prix events this season. Hanyu won the NHK Trophy on home ice in Japan after finishing second to Chan at Skate Canada.
The numbers say I should put my money on the more reliable Fernandez to take the title, but I can't. Recent history shows that Hanyu is at his best this time of year.
The Japanese star is already the only man to win three consecutive Grand Prix Final titles, and he's going for his fourth in a row this week. Last year in Barcelona, Hanyu broke his own world records for the highest scores in both the short and free programs. His resulting total of 330.43 points still stands as the best ever.
Virtue & Moir in a class of their own
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir re-established themselves as the dance team to beat at the recent NHK Trophy event where they set new world records with their short and overall scores on their way to collecting their second Grand Prix title of the season. They're my clear-cut choice for gold in Marseille.
But the two-time (and very talented) world champion French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who placed second to Virtue and Moir at the last Grand Prix event in Japan, are chasing them hard.
Virtue and Moir can't take anything for granted. They'll need to skate their best if they want to finally claim a Grand Prix Final title after four silver medals in five prior appearances. With Olympic gold and two world titles already under their belt, this is the last major title left for the Canadians to win.
Talent and tenacity
The pairs event is a contrast between the tried-and-true two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada, and the relatively recent re-pairings of two Chinese teams: Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang, and Cheng Peng and Yang Jin.
Up until the spring of 2016, these four skaters were paired as Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang, and Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin. Then they switched partners. The new teams are showing signs of promise, but while they continue to work on their skills it isn't a stretch to say that the Grand Prix Final is Duhamel and Radford's to lose.
I like the Canadians' tenacity. They go back home after every competition to try and figure out what worked and what didn't, and make the necessary adjustments.
For this event, they've been tweaking a new footwork sequence in the short program, even after winning both their Grand Prix events this season.
Duhamel and Radford are talented, determined, and have everything in their bag of skating tricks they could possibly need. You can't beat that.
Pj's gold medal picks
Men: Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan)
Ladies: Evgenia Medvedeva (Russia)
Ice Dance: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Canada)
Pairs: Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford (Canada)