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Dylan Cozens was right choice at the perfect time for Sabres

Mike Harrington

VANCOUVER — There is the need and there is the best player available. When they intersect in the Top 10 of the NHL draft, you've done your job.

The Buffalo Sabres had to feel super Friday night in Rogers Arena. They need centers in their organization in the worst way. There was a buffet of pivotmen to ponder with the No. 7 pick. Especially once Detroit threw the first round's biggest curve by taking German defenseman Moritz Seider at No. 6, far above where anyone predicted.

The Sabres had the temptation of American winger Cole Caufield, he of 72 goals at just 5-foot-7. But NHL GMs are still loathe to take little guys, and the Stanley Cup run of the St. Louis Blues might harden that position some. Caufield lasted until Montreal at No. 15, far below where he should have gone.

The Sabres had their chance with Caufield but had to stay down the middle. American Trevor Zegras, a slick passer, was on the board. So were Canadian juniors Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs.

The choice was Cozens, a powerful skater at 6-foot-3 who was a standout at Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League.

"We were locked in based off our list and how we prepared for it," said General Manager Jason Botterill. "But I'll tell you right off the bat, there was a lot of players in there that I'd like to have on my team. A lot of different types of players. Defensemen, scoring wingers, power forwards. It was a unique draft that seemed to sort of touch point on every position."

Every player in the draft has a backstory, of course. Cozens' is one of the most unusual as he tries to make the NHL after growing up in Whitehorse, the largest city in the Yukon — which hasn't produced an NHLer in 40 years.

There's plenty of pressure now from two sides — the expectations of Buffalo fans as a Top 10 pick and the buzz in his homeland about what had to once seem like an impossible NHL quest.

Cozens reveled in the moment and understood the history.

"It does feel like that, and I know it's just going to get crazier when I go back, but I'm happy to be that guy that kind of gives it back for hockey in the Yukon," he said. "It always felt like a far-fetched dream, not really achievable. But I believed it, believed in myself I could make this happen one day."

Cozens was downright brash at the combine that he can be NHL ready this season, especially because of his strong skating. Nothing wrong with that in these eyes. I think we'd all agree any extra swagger the Sabres can add would be a good idea.

So when Cozens was reminded of that conversation and asked what else he needs to do, he had an answer.

"I know I have to get stronger. It's a whole new level up there," he said. "Guys are way bigger and stronger."

The NHL loves hosting the scouting combine in Buffalo because of the setup of KeyBank Center, Harborcenter and the adjacent hotels. But the Sabres love it, too, because they can take some hometown advantage with players, taking them out to dinners and giving them in-depth tours of their massive training facility in the arena.

And players walking around downtown the last four years have often talked about how they have chance meetings with folks who instantly want to talk hockey and the Sabres with them.

"It seems like a real hockey city and that the fans get behind them a lot," Cozens said. "I loved my time there, just walking around the city and down by the water there."

Cozens will get to find out plenty more next week at development camp. These top picks go to the Combine, the Stanley Cup final and the draft, and then they are whisked away to their new teams. Cozens will be on the ice starting Wednesday.

[Comprehensive coverage: the 2019 NHL Draft]

As far as the pick, Botterill knocked away the narrative that he wouldn't take a Canadian junior. The Sabres hadn't taken a single one in the first two years since Botterill took over, and there were plenty of eyebrows raised around the league about the point. The Sabres insisted it was coincidence, but you sure had to wonder.

On one hand, you do get longer control over college and European players. On the other hand, it was just a bad look for the organization. There's another narrative swept away.

Cozens had plenty of family and friends at the draft, with Whitehorse being a quick flight to Vancouver. There will be all kinds of people he will be hearing from at home as well. It's 3,400 miles from Buffalo to Whitehorse, and the folks by the Arctic Circle will now have plenty to talk about when it comes to the 716.

"I’m so proud to represent the Yukon," Cozens said. "My phone will be absolutely blowing up."

The same might be said for Botterill's. The GM said he tried a little bit to move up from No. 7, but not from No. 31 so the Sabres took Sioux Falls defenseman Ryan Johnson. Botterill also said he tried to move 31 for some NHL talent but there just weren't any deals going down. At least not Friday.

Botterill said to stay tuned. Maybe things will happen today. Maybe next week at the start of free agency. Maybe sometime in the summer. Seeds are planted here, but not much happened Friday on the trade front. As for getting another core guy at No. 7, it appears Botterill found some success.

Dylan Cozens will put the Yukon on the map at NHL Draft

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