On the cusp of training camp this month, the league’s best and brightest young stars from its U.S.-based teams gathered at the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago for a two-day gauntlet of interviews, photo shoots and activities.
There were future Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Steven Stamkos, and Selke Trophy winner Aleksander Barkov, among others.
Some were starring in the NHL when a teenage Dylan Cozens was skating circles around his competition in Whitehorse, Yukon. They were asked to attend the annual event because the league wanted its rightsholders, including ESPN and TNT, to have enough promotional content for the 82-game season.
As the lone representative from the Buffalo Sabres, Cozens wanted to use the opportunity to reach out to the many people across the globe who watched from afar as the franchise missed the postseason for a 10th consecutive year in 2020-21.
“I take that with a lot of pride and honor, to go there and represent us,” said Cozens, who was drafted seventh overall in 2019. “There’s obviously a lot of other guys who could have. I wanted the fans to know that we’re really excited about what we have here and what we’re building. I think we all see it, so that’s the message I wanted to get out there.”
With Jack Eichel shelved because of a dispute over his preference to have an artificial disk replacement, and talented forward Sam Reinhart traded to Florida this summer, Cozens is among the new ambassadors and faces of the Sabres. And while Cozens still has much to prove after an impressive rookie season, he has shown he can hold his own against the stars he grew up watching on television.
The 20-year-old had only four goals and 13 points in 41 games during a compressed regular season that included strictly intradivisional play, but he thrived when coach Don Granato trusted him to faceoff against some of the league’s top centermen, including Crosby.
"He doesn’t have a lot of games and he has extremely high expectations. So that normally can complicate things, and he’s an emotional guy," Granato said. "With Dylan, I think, staying in the moment, not getting too far ahead of himself, because his appetite is huge. His competitive level is huge. So, for him, I wouldn’t think of it as he’s got to score 30 goals. If he just plays his game and comes to the rink every night, he’s going to be great for us.”
This season will include greater expectations and responsibility. Cozens won’t be sheltered in a bottom-six role. If early camp lines are any indication, Cozens is positioned to be the top center. He’s skating alongside 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner and power-play sniper Victor Olofsson.
The stakes weren’t as high during Cozens’ debut season. He started on the wing alongside veteran Eric Staal and shifted to center, his natural position, in March when Eichel went down with a herniated disk in his neck. At the time, the Sabres were amid a winless streak that eventually reached 18 games. The final weeks under Granato were all about increasing minutes for young players and allowing them to make mistakes.
Wins were secondary, as the Sabres were laying the foundation for the new young core to take over. Results will matter now. While outsiders are predicting the club will finish near or at the bottom of the standings, the playoff drought will loom large and, unfairly, there will be those eager to criticize the decision to part ways with Reinhart and, inevitably, Eichel in favor of a plan built around Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin.
Cozens, though, arrived at training camp determined to take another step. He spent most of his offseason in London, Ontario, training on and off the ice at Total Package Hockey. Cozens skated with NHLers Bo Horvat, Boone Jenner, Nick and Ryan Suzuki, Jordan Kyrou, Sean Couturier, Corey Perry and Sabres teammate Jacob Bryson, among others.
Cozens also trained off the ice with strength coach Mitch Stewart, completing a rigorous regimen to improve upper-body strength. The offseason included a three-week trip to his hometown, where he continued his work with local strength coach Ben McPherson, who has trained Cozens for several years at Northern Strength Academy in Whitehorse.
“Dylan didn’t take any days off last summer and he’s better for it,” McPherson said. “We’re really happy with how physically ready he was, and he looked even better this summer, so I’m excited. … You’re looking for a little bit more upper body strength and stability. Lower body, he’s as strong as any of the pro guys. From my understanding talking to Mitch, Dylan is a lot stronger than the majority of them in terms of lower-body strength. … He left here stronger and more powerful. We expect to see that first step be a little bit quicker this year, too.”
The circumstances weren’t ideal during Cozens’ rookie season. He was forced to quarantine multiple times and missed the start of NHL training camp because of the IIHF World Junior Championship. But Cozens put on a historic performance in Edmonton, helping Canada capture a silver medal with eight goals and 16 points in seven games.
His wizardry in the offensive zone, from the slingshot-like release that’s made junior goalies look silly to the remarkable ability to get teammates the puck, wasn’t a regular sight with Ralph Krueger as coach. Cozens averaged only 3.97 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in those 20 games. In 21 games under Granato, Cozens had 7.92 shots per 60 minutes, ranking fifth on the team. During that span, Cozens also had one goal and eight points while averaging 15:03 of ice time. He skated more than 17 minutes on six occasions and earned difficult assignments against Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and others. Cozens explained that he was no longer "scared" to use his creativity with the puck.
Risks can lead to mistakes, though, and Cozens' standard for himself led to some frustration, Granato said. Cozens learned from that experience and is ready to apply those lessons during his pursuit to become a catalyst for change in Buffalo.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Cozens. “I want to be the best version of myself and best player I can be. … If I fail sometimes, learn from that and grow. But I want to be the best I can be.”