CALUMET - The Calumet Copper Kings hockey team doesn't rebuild. It reloads. But after losing 10 players from last year's team and only returning seven, it's hard to know what to expect from the Kings' new weapons this season.
"We'll have to give it time. You don't know. This team could be as good as last year, or it could be a big setback," said head coach Jim Crawford, who is sitting on 500 career wins after reaching last year's regional championship game but losing to eventual state runner-up Houghton.
The biggest challenge Crawford will face in his 29th season at the helm is figuring out how to replace three senior defensemen, Ben Storm, Tyler Froberg and Josh Harju, who were all at least 6-foot-1.
Calumet’s Lucas Lahnala tries to tuck the puck under Hancock goaltender Devin Kero during their game in the 2011 Copper Island Classic. Lahnala is one of the top returners for Calumet, which begins its 2012-13 season tonight. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
"With those big defensemen gone that's going to make a heck of a difference," said Crawford, who noted not just their physical dominance, but also their powerful shots on the offensive end.
"But you never know how kids will develop. Defensively we may have to make adjustments as the year goes on."
Leading the way on D will be 5-foot-11 senior Adam Gill and 6-foot senior James Sturos, but after that it'll be up to 5-foot-8 junior Bradley Erkkila, 5-foot-7 junior Bradley Hodges and 5-foot-8 sophomore Maxx Fredrickson to solidify the Copper King blue line.
The Copper Kings' 2012-13 schedule (home games in ALL CAPS):
Nov. 30at Cranbrook
Dec. 1at Cranbrook
Dec. 11at Marquette
Dec. 13at Kingsford
Dec. 15FARMINGTON UNIFIED
Dec. 20at Houghton
Dec. 27 Houghton (MacInnes)
Dec. 28MacInnes Classic
Jan. 18UD JESUIT
Jan. 19UD JESUIT
Jan. 22at Negaunee
Jan. 29at Houghton
Jan. 31at Hancock
Feb. 8at MIHL Showcase
Feb. 9at MIHL Showcase
Feb. 15at Escanaba
"These guys aren't big, obviously not the size of (Storm, Froberg and Harju). It's going to be a growing process," said Crawford, who will be relying on new assistant coach Dan Giachino to lead the defense.
Giachino joins Crawford having coached the Copper King JV team the last two years.
Calumet also loses its top goaltender from last year in Tyler Kangas, but he split time with Troy Pierce, who returns as a junior with a clear grasp on the No. 1 job. Senior Brian Rogers played for the JV team last year and will back up Pierce, though he may see time in this weekend's Copper Island Classic with Pierce battling back problems.
"Troy is a fine goaltender. We expect big things from him, that's for sure," Crawford said.
Fortunately for the Kings, no matter how things shake out on the back end, the offense should still be strong with its aggressive forechecking style (5.64 goals per game last year).
They lose one Erkkila, Levi (31 goals, 26 assists last year), but gain another, Robert, his freshman brother, who will instantly jump up to the first line along with seniors Brendan Jacques and Lucas Lahnala, who each scored 17 goals last year.
"This line here could be just as potent as last year's line. We expect a lot of similar things from them," Crawford said.
Senior Bryce Johnson (16 goals, 12 assists last year) will anchor the second line along with Eric Mattila (6 goals, 9 assists) and newcomer Evan Billeck, while the third line will be made up entirely of fresh faces, with a rotation involving seniors Blake Rowe and Reilly Schreiber, and juniors Matt Prouty and Braden Anderson.
"These guys are all inexperienced, but they all played on the JV team last year. Give them time and they should be very good," said Crawford, who is feeling much better himself this year after battling several health problems last year.
"It just wasn't a good year for me. It really was tough," he said. "I feel a heck of a lot better this year."
As for whether his team will be better, that's of course to be determined, but the Copper Kings will certainly be put to the test early, starting tonight and Saturday against Hancock in the Copper Island Classic.
"Of course you want to win both games in the total-goal series, but we want to see how some of these kids react to a little bit of pressure," Crawford said.
"It'll be different for quite a few of these kids."
It won't get any easier after this weekend as Calumet visits Cranbrook Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, Marquette Dec. 11 and Kingsford Dec. 13 before finally playing again at Calumet Colosseum against Farmington Unified on Dec. 15.