World Junior Championship: How Buffalo Sabres pick Dylan Cozens turned adversity into power

The seventh-overall pick in the 2019 draft has been amazing for WHL Lethbridge and cashed in on an early chance to impress at Canada's world junior camp with a spot centering the top line. And this kid is not slowing down.
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Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Canada is blessed with so much talent at the junior level and while that can make for some tricky decisions for the world junior team, it’s hard not to look at center Dylan Cozens and see a sure thing for this year’s tournament in the Czech Republic.

The Buffalo Sabres first-rounder centered a line with Tampa Bay pick Nolan Foote and star 2020 draft prospect Quinton Byfield in the first exhibition game against a tough Canadian University squad in Oakville, Ont., and the trio was powerful.

“All of us are big and can skate,” Byfield said. “We moved the puck around pretty well, too.”

What impressed me the most about Cozens on the night was how he backchecked, however. Whenever there was a turnover, Cozens used his speed to get right back on defense and he broke up several enemy chances by closing on the puck carrier. That idea of transitioning quickly on defense is loved by coaches and Cozens already has fans on Canada’s staff.

“I know Cuzzy from the (Hlinka-Gretzky) under-18s,” said assistant coach Andre Tourigny. “I like him. He has a lot of speed, he competes really hard, has good hands and he’s a great kid.”

Cozens was invited to the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan this past summer, but couldn’t compete in any games due to a broken thumb sustained at Buffalo’s post-draft development camp. At the time, it was a bit of a kick in the shins for the rebuilding Sabres and their fans, but Cozens has since found a silver lining.

“Obviously it was disappointing getting hurt at development camp and having to miss a lot of my summer training and the showcase,” he said. “But I still flew in, hung out with the guys and met all the staff. The biggest thing the thumb injury helped with was my lower-body strength, because I wasn’t able to work on my upper body. So I was all focused around explosiveness and power down-low, which helped a lot.”

That souped-up engine is perfect for today’s fast game and with Cozens already boasting a 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame, he’s got great size to continue building on. He also sounds perfect for the way Canada’s coaches have told the players how to play in Ostrava:

“Fast and hard,” Cozens said. “Focus on managing pucks a lot - getting pucks behind them and hunting them down, getting the puck back and running switches on different plays.”

One of the top scorers in the WHL with 46 points in 30 games, Cozens plays for a pretty good Lethbridge Hurricanes squad that also features offensive defenseman and Canada WJC hopeful Calen Addison (PIT) and high-scoring Slovakian national Oliver Okuliar. The mission for the Canes is obvious to Cozens.

“I want to win,” he said. “I think we have a team that can go all the way, so my goal is to win the league, then hopefully go to the Memorial Cup and win there.”

That would all be great for his development and if this ends up being his final year of junior hockey, it would not be surprising. The seventh overall selection in the 2019 draft is already honing the raw skills that made him such a high pick in the first place and all the experiences he is getting with Canada will push him even further. While the surprising Sabres are no longer starved for talent on their roster, it never hurts to have as much depth as possible and Cozens could be an answer next season in Buffalo. As for now, he’s keeping his NHL team on the radar.

“It’s exciting to see,” Cozens said. “I watch the games when I can, but I’m focused on Lethbridge right now. Hopefully next season I can make a good impression at camp.”

He has already made a pretty good statement at Canada’s world junior camp, so the precedent is there.

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