Copper Kings look to rely on defense-first mentality

Calumet goaltender Aksel Loukus (31) makes a save against Landon Stevens (13) in overtime during the MHSAA Division 3 Region 17 championship on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Houghton, Mich. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)

CALUMET — For the better part of the last decade, the Calumet Copper Kings hockey team has featured multiple players who were naturally gifted goal scorers, from Rory Anderson to Dean Loukus, from Sam Erkkila to Tanner Rowe.

Last season, the Copper Kings featured Jackson Rilei and Paul Sturos, both of whom racked up over 40 points. However, with both players having graduated, things look murky offensively heading into the 2022-23 season.

Add to that mix the graduation of Tom Erkkila, the team’s top defenseman, and Cliff Jurmu, and that is a recipe for a reset, if not a rebuild.

“We obviously lost some of our significant players between Jackson and Paul and Tom Erkkila,” said coach Dan Giachino. “Cliff Jurmu saw a ton of ice time last year, and Ayden Williams. The guys that we lost were a lot of our key kids. Guys this year are going to have to try to step up and fill those roles up for us.”

Giachino does not see one or two players running away with the scoring lead on the team this season, so that means that he and his staff will be counting on several players to fill gaps.

“To fill those roles, this year, is going to be a challenge,” he said. “I don’t foresee us having any 40-to-50-point scorers on the team this year. We’re going to have to fill it by committee. We’re going to have to spread our scoring out.

“We’re gonna have to get contributions from our defenseman, from an offensive standpoint, and we’re going to need to rely on our goaltending especially early in the season.”

The position of strength that Calumet has to start the season is in net, where senior Aksel Loukus returns for his fourth season. Loukus saw action in 25 contests last season, including the playoffs. He went 16-9 with a 2.59 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.

“You have that behind you to cover up for the mistakes that are going to happen during the course of the game,” said Giachino. “He’s been a goaltender that’s been one of the better goaltenders, whether it be in the U.P. or within the state, over the last two years.

Giachino feels that his veteran goaltender is more than ready for the challenge before him.

“He’s looked really sharp so far this year,” Giachino said. “(It) doesn’t look like he’s skipped a beat so far this year. So, we’re looking for him to take his game to even bigger places. I think we feel pretty confident that he can do that.”

The Copper Kings return junior forward Cam Anderson. Anderson had six goals and 18 points in 24 games during the regular season last year, before adding a goal and four assists in four playoff games.

“He’s got the most offensive upside on our team,” said Giachino. “He’s shifty. He is strong on his skates. He sees the ice pretty well, and he has a little bit of an ability to finish. So, he’s not the biggest kid out there, but he can be shifty. I think he is going to be really relied upon to lead our first line.”

The Copper Kings’ second line gained a ton of experience last season. Senior Gabe Mattila, senior Braydon Cima, and sophomore Brendan Boberg all played in at least 24 games last season, and all three scored at least four points. This season, the trio are expected to take a large stride forward.

“Our second line, right now, is all returning kids,” Giachino said. “Those are three guys that have been in the locker room last year, and have learned what it takes to play. We’re going to look to that line to give us some good offensive shifts.

“It’s going to have to be more balanced for us this year. We’re not going to be able to rely on two or three guys to do all the scoring for us, so it’s going to have to be a little bit of everybody.”

Of the trio, Boberg is a player that Giachino feels could help with production now that he has gotten a year of high school hockey under his belt.

“He got taken up last year as a ninth grader, and I think he got thrown into the fire, and gradually got better as the season went on,” Giachino said. “So, we’re looking at him to, as a sophomore now, take that next step and to be a little bit more assertive, a little bit more involved.

“I think we’ve been seeing that out of him early in the year. He’s got some good skills, and now we just have to translate skill into points on the board, basically. That transition step can be hard for kids, at that ninth and 10th grade age, to be able to take skill and turn it into productivity. That’s kind of the next step for him.”

On the back end, senior Dan Loukus will be looked upon to lead the Copper Kings defensively, especially until senior Hans Kiilunen returns from the injury he suffered in football this season.

Senior Landen Goulette earned a lot of experience last season at the varsity level. He will be tasked with helping with the development of senior Ben Frantti, who saw action in just one game at the varsity level last season.

Giachino likes how well Dan Loukus plays in his own end, and figures that will be key when trying to shut down teams like Houghton or Marquette.

“Danny’s going to provide us with some steadiness, and just good defensive defense,” Giachino said.

On the younger end of the spectrum, sophomore Ted Loukus and freshman Dylan Crouch are both players who could have an impact before the season is over. Giachino really likes the skill that Crouch brings, and hopes he can figure things out quickly at the high school level.

“Dylan might be our most talented hockey player, but it’s going to take him some time to learn how to play at this level,” said Giachino. “His skill level is really strong, especially for a freshman. (He has) decent size, a little bit under 6-foot and 150-160 pounds, so we’re looking for him to do some really good things too.”

Giachino feels that his team learned a lot last season, and hopes they will carry those lessons into this season.

“Coming from the two seasons prior to that, we dominated a lot of teams, and we would score four or five goals, sometimes, four or five, or six goals against teams. Last year, we didn’t, and we weren’t going to. We had a couple of strong offensive guys to rely upon, but we weren’t geared last year to score five goals a game.

“We figured out other ways to win last year, and that was playing some team defense, that was getting some timely goaltending, that was, especially in the playoffs, and sacrificing bodies and blocking shots, and doing all those little things. Kids bought into that really well. We’re going to need to do it again this year. We’re not set up to score five goals a game. We’re going to have to grind out when scoring two, three goals. It’s a different style of hockey, but we’re just going to have to coach to it, and get the kids to buy into how to do it.”


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