HOUGHTON — While the big three hockey schools in the area, Houghton, Hancock, and Calumet, have all made long, deep playoff runs over the last several seasons, the Jeffers Jets have been slowly trying to build their program back from the ground up. It has been trying, at times, and there have been some successes and some setbacks along the way.
The Jets finished last season 12-12-1, and took some major strides in the right direction. This year, they return most of their offense, which is a huge positive for them, however, they are both young and inexperienced on the back end, both defensively, and in goal. So, their season may come down to how quickly they can learn to play defense at the varsity level.
Also, with change on the back end comes change at the helm. Aaron Helminen, who was an assistant coach last season after being a volunteer coach the year before, has taken the reins, and he is excited to see what his team can do.
“Yeah, (I) volunteered two years ago, (I was) an assistant last year, and now head coach this year,” said Aaron. “So, we’ve been around for a few years with this group. That’s nice to have that, to be familiar with that part of it.”
Aaron describes himself as a coach who communicates heavily with his players. He wants to know how the players see a situation, or a decision, so that he can help them make a different choice, or see something they might have missed, the next time.
“I’m kind of one that always likes to ask the question, why did the kid do this, or why do you do that?” he said. “Then try to figure it out from there with them, communicating with the player themselves. Did they do that because they didn’t know? Did they do that because they did know? Was it a lack of effort? So, just kind of analyzing that portion of it and then always just challenging the kids to get better constantly.”
Aaron finds that to be a very valuable learning tool.
“You have 18 kids on the team, everyone brings a little something different to the table,” he said. “So, if I come here and say, ‘Oh, I want this and this,’ well, that doesn’t necessarily work for 18 kids.
“They’re all individuals, so we have to kind of analyze each individual, find a spot that best fits their game, and then make them successful from there.”
Aaron takes over a team that surprised some teams a year ago. They beat Calumet early in the season, 2-1, at home, lost a close battle with Hancock two nights later, beat Negaunee twice, topped Gaylord, and lost close matchups with Hancock again, Sault Ste. Marie, and University Liggett late in the season.
With that success comes some confidence, which should help the Jets take another step this season.
“We definitely took a step last year, and now the encouraging part is we have those kids last year, right. sophomores, juniors, they were kind of forced into roles when they were freshmen, sophomores, to play the big minutes in the games,” said Aaron. “Now they’re a little more mature, have that experience. I think that, coming into this season, it’d definitely be an advantage where kids have really had a lot of experience in big situations, know their confidence is growing in them situations.”
The Jets will be leaning heavily on senior forward Kailob Bianco, junior forward Benton Rajala and junior forward Cody Turner. The trio have played together the last two seasons, growing with each game. They are split up to start this season, but they are still impact players no matter what line they are on.
Bianco led the Jets with 18 goals and 33 points in 25 games last season.
“What I like about Kailob is he shows up,” said Aaron. “A lot of people, I think, confuse it a little bit with him that he’s not trying all the time, but I think he manages the game well. He positions himself and he takes advantage of mistakes and can put the puck in the back of the net.”
If Bianco did not score, Rajala was often there to clean up. He had 13 goals and 26 points last season. Aaron is working with him to improve his 200-foot game this season.
“Benton’s got speed, and now (with) him being a junior, he’s got a little more size and strength,” Aaron said. “So, I think he can really be a force for us this season.”
Turner struggled to score last season, finishing with just five goals and 17 points, but he has shown in the past that he can be a big contributor. This year, he is transitioning to center, which will give him more ice to work with.
“Cody’s definitely a confidence kid,” said Aaron, “get him rolling and he can go. We’ve actually this year took him from a wing position in that role, and put him centering our second line, (to) kind of give him a little bit more ice to work with, and allow him to create a little bit more similar to like Kailob’s style.”
Two more forwards who will be counted on this season are junior Brit Heinoon and senior Trayton Helminen.
Heinonen scored 17 goals last season, which were second on the team.
“He’s an offensive guy,” Aaron said. “He can definitely score, and he knows the areas to get to score goals. So, we’re looking for that out of him again this year and some growth on the defensive side.”
Trayton was a pleasant surprise, scoring eight goals and 18 points.
“(He’s) not as skilled as our other five returning guys, but comes to work,” said Aaron. “He’s a consistent player.”
Defensively, the Jets are looking at sophomore Griffin Heinonen to grow into an impact role at the varsity level. He is one of three new faces amongst the blue line corps.
“We have three new guys, one being Griffin Heinonen, who we’re going to look to kind of carry the play for us on defense,” Aaron said. “He’s got that offensive mentality. He sees the ice and he can get that first pass coming up the zone. (That) is definitely critical to breaking out and getting up the ice.”
Senior Brett Huuki will be a player the Jets rely on in their own end. Not known for his offense, Huuki is a big, strong body player, who is tough to play against.
“Brett, being a senior, definitely has some size and strength to him,” said Aaron. “So, we’re going to look for him to really be an enforcer in the defensive zone, and kind of create that fear of going in the corner with him.”
In goal, the Jets will see the biggest change of all. Gone is Simon Rajala, who was a four-year starter. There are two new faces in the mix this year in sophomore Kasen Helminen, and Pierce Johnson, a freshman.
Kasen is likely to get the nod more often than not this season. He is a big undersized, which can be a challenge at this level.
“He doesn’t have a lot of size, so what we’re looking for him is try to play big,” Aaron said. “He’s got to definitely use his angles to his advantage, look to control rebounds, and kind of keep the puck in front of him. (He can) help our team out by stopping the play, helping our defensemen, talking with them, communicating with them to what’s in front of them.”
The Jets play a similar schedule this year to what they played a year ago, so they will face Calumet and Hancock twice, Houghton once, Sault Ste. Marie, De La Salle, and University Liggett. They also have Marquette on the schedule this year as well as Rochester Stoney Creek late in the season.