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New faces look to chip-in for Huskies this season

Michigan Tech’s Kyle Kukkonen(9) redirects a pass from Logan Pietila (13) past Thunderwolves goaltender Brock Aiken during an exhibition game on Monday at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena. (David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — With the Michigan Tech Huskies hockey program having lost five of their top six scorers, nine seniors, and three players to the transfer portal, head coach Joe Shawhan and his staff have had to bring in a large freshman class to try to fill the holes left by the large exiting group.

This year’s freshman crop includes two goaltenders, Max Vayrynen and Michael Morelli, five defensemen, Oliver Bezick, Frank Dovorany, Topi Heiskanen, Evan Orr, and Kasper Vaharutio, and three forwards, Kyle Kukkonen, Trevor Kukkonen, and Kash Rasmussen.

The Kukkonen brothers are not twins, as more than a year separates them, but they both are accomplished hockey players and have local ties, including to Athletic Director Susan Sanregret.

There are also three Finnish-born players in the group, Vayrynen, Heiskanen, and Vaharautio.

Huskies fans who saw either of the two exhibition games the Huskies played over the weekend had a chance to see several of the new faces in the lineup. While it is a small sample size, Shawhan likes what he has seen of the players who earned the chance to play.

“I think the freshmen have good examples to go after,” he said. “I think they’re taking advantage of that right now.”

The player with the most excitement around him is Kyle Kukkonen. The 5-foot-10 winger from Maple Grove, Minnesota, spent the weekend on a line with co-captain Logan Pietila and assistant captain Ryland Mosley.

Kyle comes to the Huskies having been drafted by the Anaheim Ducks and having led the USHL’s Madison Capitols forwards in scoring last season with 22 goals and 53 points, just two points behind defenseman Luke Middlestadt.

Shawhan is impressed by Kyle’s work ethic and his ability to read plays as they develop.

“He’s got guys there that he can look at and follow to some degree,” Shawhan said, “but he’s a thoroughbred. He came in ready to play.

“What I like about him is he’s not stuck in the moment. You can tell, in his eyes, in the way he approaches things. He’s about development, about getting better, and about the end game.”

Kyle’s older brother Trevor was fourth in scoring for the NAHL’s Minnesota Magicians last season with 22 goals and 49 points. Shawhan likes what he sees of Trevor’s game so far, but expects his transition to college hockey to be more traditional than his younger brother’s.

“Right now he’s a depth guy, battling for ice time,” said Shawhan. “It’ll get better because he has a tremendous work ethic and character.”

On the blue line, Heiskanen, a 5-foot-11, left-handed shot, could prove to be a key addition. He saw significant time in both exhibition games last weekend.

A two-way defender who plays tough in his own end, Shawhan likes what he sees from Heiskanen. He scored 14 goals and 50 points in 70 games over the past two seasons with KalPa’s U20 team.

The young Finn is struggling some with the language barrier, and that could make things tough for him to stay in the lineup.

“There’s significant growth in him,” said Shawhan. “He’s fighting a language barrier. He’s fighting academics, which don’t come natural to him.

“On the ice, there’s growth daily. He’s tough. He’s hard- nosed. My biggest concern is that he stays academically eligible.”

Dovorany stepped in on Monday night and played well in limited action. With just 29 points over 110 NAHL games, he is not known for his offense, but he has ability to move the puck, and has worked hard to improve his defensive ability over the past two seasons with the Austin Bruins and Odessa Jackalopes, where he served as captain.

In goal, Huskies fans had a glimpse of the future on Monday as Vayrynen stepped in and shut out the Lakehead Thunderwolves, making 16 saves in the process.

The Espoo, Finland, native stands 6-foot-2. He showed an ability to move side-to-side very quickly, including to make a highlight reel save in the second period.

Shawhan is impressed by what he has seen of Vayrynen in practice and feels that he has the ability to start at the collegiate level.

“He’s a good goaltender,” Shawhan said. “He went in and performed when he had the opportunity. That’s what you look for: guys, that when they have the opportunity, they are ready and they perform.”

The new Huskies will push the veterans for ice time as early as this weekend. They will be on the road to face the Ferris State Bulldogs in a non conference match on Friday in Big Rapids and then the U.S. National Development Program’s U18 team on Saturday in Plymouth.

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