LETHBRIDGE, Alberta – The Dog Days of December absolutely exist for junior hockey stars. And they can be tough ones.
It's quite the dilemma. Keep grinding away through long bus rides across the prairies while counting down the days to training camp for the World Junior Championship, a tournament many of them have been aiming for their entire young lives.
That's where Dylan Cozens finds himself this week.
The Buffalo Sabres' No. 1 draft pick in June has put up a great season thus far for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, grabbing a share of the Western Hockey League scoring lead. But come Monday in Oakville, Ont., he starts Team Canada camp for the tournament Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in the Czech Republic. Cozens figures to be one of Canada's top players.
"There's obviously a lot in the near future I'm really excited for but I'm just trying to focus on the two last games we have here before then," Cozens told The Buffalo News after Wednesday's dreary 3-1 loss to the Everett (Wash.) Silvertips. "Hopefully I go into that World Junior tryout with momentum of two good games."
Cozens and Lethbridge defenseman Caleb Addison, a 2018 second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, are both in the same boat pointing to the Junior camp. Neither did much Wednesday, as Cozens lost a four-game point streak and took a hooking penalty that led to the game's tying goal early in the third period. Before heading East, they have a rematch Friday with Medicine Hat and play Saturday night in Swift Current.
"For sure it does," Lethbridge coach Brent Kisio said when asked how the looming junior camp impacts players. "But Dylan has been real good for us obviously. He works so hard and he's really a pro on and off the ice. He's one of our leaders and most nights he's going.
"I don't think either one of them were very good here tonight and it's tough on them," Kisio added. "You have to always play for the right reasons and that's to play here first. When they go to the World Junior, then they have that task in front of them. They're good kids. They play so hard."
Cozens currently plies his trade a long way from Buffalo. Lethbridge is roughly two hours south of Calgary, and plays in front of crowds in the 3-4,000 range in the 5,500-seat ENMAX Centre. Built in 1974 and heavily renovated in 2009, it's filled with the history of Lethbridge hockey, both the old Broncos and the current version of the Hurricanes.
The framed jerseys of Chicago Stanley Cup champions and Lethbridge alumni Brent Seabrook and Kris Versteeg are in the concourse and one wall facing the rink lists the team's annual award winners, including Cozens' 2018 Rookie of the Year award. By the locker room are wall plaques listing the franchise's draft picks, Cup winners and World Junior participants.
In his third season in Lethbridge, Cozens enters the weekend with 42 points in 28 games as the Hurricanes have gone 17-9-4 and are third in the Central Division, four points behind Edmonton. He has 19 goals, two off the league lead of linemate Oliver Okuliar, and 23 assists.
Cozens had 10 points in his previous four games but was shut down Wednesday as Lethbridge struggled to find energy on a back to back. The Hurricanes suffered their worst loss of the year Tuesday in Medicine Hat (8-3) and had only 14 shots on goal through two periods Wednesday.
"Obviously you see the production but how he's been skating, attacking the play, creating opportunities has really been impressive," said Sabres GM Jason Botterill, who attended Wednesday's game. "And this is going to be another great step for him. No matter what his role is for Hockey Canada, being part of that environment is going to be a huge accomplishment."
"He's one of the most competitive guys I've ever seen. Not just hockey. Everything," said Addison, whom Cozens rates as one of his best friends on the team. "Every single thing in the world, he's the most competitive guy. Hates to lose. Always wants to be the best of everything. It shows."
Cozens said he's had regular visits this season from Sabres development coaches Krys Barch and Mike Komisarek. Development coach and former Sabre Adam Mair was on hand Wednesday along with new Western scout Mark Ferner, who played with the Sabres and Amerks during the 1980s. Botterill joined them while making his first visit here this season.
"They've been checking in a lot and it's super nice to know the way they're keeping tabs on me and really care about my development," Cozens said. "It's been really nice to have that support, have a lot of people to talk to. Especially on a day when things maybe aren't going as well as you'd like."
Cozens admitted he was bummed to not have a good game with the GM in the house but said he understands one game, pro or con, isn't going to change an impression. Botterill said the same thing.
"Sometimes production is outside your control," Botterill said. "Our development staff has been very happy about the things we talk to him about. Faceoffs. Creating parts of his game to get to the net. He's very talented. He can get the production but is it really helping him for the next step? That's what we need and we're enjoying our discussions with him. He's very competitive and wants to help his team win, but he's always asking what do I have to work on?"
One lesson Cozens carried from his impressive showing in Sabres training camp and the preseason is the pace necessary to compete in the NHL. He said he returned to Lethbridge trying to keep that in mind.
"It really opens your eyes and it's the biggest thing I took from camp," he said. "I've done my best here to try to keep that speed up as much as possible. I know I've gotten away from it at times but my goal is to keep that NHL-level speed going and make everyone try to play at my game."
"You can really see the maturity in him. He's probably the best player I've ever played with so far," said Addison. "He can skate and shoot, do everything better than almost anyone I've seen. It continues to get better and his game becomes that much more well-rounded."
Cozens knows the World Junior will be a big step up in competition. And that it will be another line on his whirlwind 2019 resume that's included the draft combine, a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in St. Louis and his selection by the Sabres at No. 7 overall in Vancouver to become the highest-drafted player ever from Yukon.
"It's super exciting. I still have to have a good camp and make that team but I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "It's another big milestone for me, something I've wanted to be a part of my whole career. You grow up as a kid in Canada watching those games during Christmas week. It's something I've wanted to be a part of representing Canada on that stage and it's almost here."