An announcement Monday by the Canadian Hockey League confirmed what Dylan Cozens suspected days before he returned to his family's home in Whitehorse, Yukon.
In association with its three regional leagues, the CHL canceled its 2020 playoffs because of the coronavirus epidemic. Cozens' fourth, and potentially final, season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes was over. So was the Buffalo Sabres prospect's hope of winning the Western Hockey League championship and Memorial Cup.
"It was tough," Cozens said over the phone from his family's home. "We obviously suspected it was going to come to an end, but there was always that little bit of hope they’d find a way to do it."
Cozens spent the past week skating on his family's backyard rink and working out off the ice to keep himself ready in the event the Hurricanes were able to finish their season. The cancellation won't change his routine, but there is a different reason behind the regimen.
Cozens, who the Sabres selected seventh overall at the NHL draft in June, will now use his long offseason to prepare himself to play in Buffalo next season.
"It’s obviously a longer offseason than usual," said Cozens. "A lot of stuff kind of up in the air right now. But I have to focus on being ready to go in and make a good impression on Buffalo. That’s where I want to play. I want to make the jump to the NHL. I have a long offseason here to get myself ready for that, so I’m going to do what I can. That’s the goal. I want to be in Buffalo next season."
Following an impressive showing at his first NHL training camp, Cozens established himself as one of the top junior players in Canada this season. The 19-year-old center scored 38 goals with 47 assists for 85 points in only 51 regular-season games. His two goals and seven assists in seven games helped Canada win gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic.
Lethbridge gave Cozens a weeklong break to return home following the win, which afforded him time to rest following a rigorous month of hockey and travel. Upon returning to the Hurricanes, Cozens again showed he was physically capable of handling the chaotic schedule that included long bus rides across Western Canada.
Cozens had 19 goals with 25 assists for 44 points with Lethbridge in 21 games following his five-week absence for world juniors.
It was an important step for Cozens, who needs to show Sabres brass he can handle an 82-game season that includes back-to-back games. He appears to have mastered junior hockey, as illustrated by his WHL career stat line: 95 goals with 128 assists for 223 points in 179 regular-season games.
Though Cozens was assigned to Lethbridge following three preseason games with Buffalo, his speed and playmaking ability made a strong impression on General Manager Jason Botterill and coach Ralph Krueger. The latter explained that Cozens needs to show he is ready for the "pace" and "intensity" of the NHL.
"It was huge," Cozens said of his first NHL training camp. "Being around the guys and learning from them, watching what they’re doing, I tried to take in as much as I could and bring it back to Lethbridge with me. My main focus going back to Lethbridge was to keep that NHL speed, keep that pace and make everyone else play up to my level. I think I did a good job with that."
Cozens had eight multigoal games, including three hat tricks, and 23 multipoint games with Lethbridge this season. He and his Hurricanes teammates had secured a playoff spot with five regular-season games remaining when the CHL announced it was suspending play in response to coronavirus. Cozens remained in Lethbridge and worked out away from the rink while awaiting word on next steps.
When CHL players were permitted to return to their family's permanent residence, Cozens embarked on the 26-hour drive to Whitehorse. He wasn't sure when or if he'd return to Lethbridge.
"I think coming back, I definitely improved my leadership side of the game," Cozens said of his season in Lethbridge. "With a younger team, being a guy who had been there a couple years coming back, and showing those guys the ropes. I think I just improved my whole game overall."
It's unclear what's next for Cozens. The Sabres intended to have Cozens join the Rochester Americans for the Calder Cup playoffs, but the American Hockey League's season is in jeopardy after it suspended play. Regardless, CHL rules prevent Cozens from competing in the AHL until he turns 20 next February. The Sabres also may have to reschedule their prospect development camp, which is typically held in June at LECOM Harborcenter.
A path to the NHL is clear for Cozens, though. The Sabres are in need of more talent up front and currently do not have a legitimate scoring threat at center behind Jack Eichel. There is work to be done, most notably in the weight room, but Cozens has plenty of time to prepare for the next step following a difficult end to his season.
"We worked the whole season, we wanted to play in the playoffs," Cozens said. "We were getting really excited for playoffs. It was definitely disappointing, but there’s a bigger picture here. We all have to do our part and get through this."