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Brimming with confidence, Sabres’ Dylan Cozens trying to go from ‘super raw’ to elite

February 16th, 2022 by Lance Lysowski

His nose still blotched from hours under the sun in Miami, Dylan Cozens cracked a smile when recalling how he and two of his Buffalo Sabres teammates, Tage Thompson and Jacob Bryson, chose to spend their brief respite from the grind of an 82-game NHL season.

“We went out fishing a bit and just enjoyed some nice, hot weather,” Cozens, 21, said following a recent Sabres practice in KeyBank Center. “It was pretty slow for most of it, but then we ended up catching a hammerhead shark.”

Aside from reeling in the six-foot behemoth off the coast of South Florida, it was difficult to escape thoughts of what’s next for the Sabres because the trio encountered numerous fellow NHLers who left the cold to unplug under the sun during the All-Star break. But physically rested from a calamitous start to his second professional season, Cozens returned to Buffalo determined to take the next step in his goal to reach his immense potential.

Brimming with confidence from an impressive run of play before the break, Cozens knows where he needs to improve. Yet the No. 7 choice of the 2019 draft has experienced enough the past two seasons to know that transforming into an elite NHL player won’t occur overnight.

Cozens has already seen an 18-game winless streak, a coaching change, franchise-altering trades that plotted a new course for the Sabres, Covid-19 outbreaks and, naturally, maddening mistakes that come with learning how to succeed as a young center in the NHL. None of the tribulation discouraged Cozens, though. Equipped with lessons from a difficult first season, Cozens is showing why he’s a cornerstone for the Sabres.

“I have standards and expectations for myself,” Cozens told The Buffalo News. “And when I’m not meeting those, I hold myself to a very high standard. I’ve learned to stop putting so much pressure on myself and just going out and playing. I think that’s something I learned last year. I think the biggest thing for me is just confidence, knowing I can produce. I’ve been a player that’s created my whole career.

“It’s the NHL. Last year, I was 19, 20 years old playing in the National Hockey League, and I think I might have had my expectations a little high, too much pressure on myself. This year, I know the player I am, I know the player I can be and will be in this league.”

Flashes of Cozens’ future are seen throughout Sabres games. There’s the dynamic speed that can beat even the league’s best, the vision to survey the ice to evaluate passing options, deception to fool opponents and a right-handed shot that can be lethal off the rush.

Cozens is close to producing at a 20-goal pace, totaling 11 goals and 21 points in 44 games. He’s averaging 15:55 of ice time and ranks fourth on the team with 83 shots on goal. During an abbreviated rookie season, Cozens had only four goals and 13 points with 62 shots on goal in 41 games.

The advanced stats also illustrate how important Cozens has been to the offense at even strength. He ranks third among the team’s forwards in individual shot quality at 5-on-5; second in high-danger chances created; fifth in on-ice shot quality; and sixth in Evolving-Hockey’s goals above replacement, a metric that shows a player’s impact in all situations.

The success is a product of confidence. Cozens is no longer afraid to use his creativity to make plays with the puck. As a rookie, Cozens didn’t want a turnover to lead to a drop in ice time. A conservative approach contradicted what makes him such a dynamic player, eliminating the ferocious bull-in-a-china-shop rushes that were a staple of his game in junior hockey.

It wasn’t until Don Granato took over as coach in March 2021 that Cozens was given the freedom to make the rush-leading plays that have sparked the Sabres this season. This finally allowed Cozens to learn how to use those tools against the best in the world.

“Dylan played a lot of one-on-one hockey, which is common for players coming into the NHL,” Granato said. “They got to the NHL because they are skilled and can beat a guy one-on-one, and Dylan is using the entire rink. He’s showing defensemen now that he will use that guy over there and could potentially use that guy over there. He backs the defenseman off enough that his acceleration, his change of speed, he’s added a lot more deception in his game using his peripherals, rather than just attacking one-on-one.”

There was also the realization that any shot can turn into a goal. Last season, Cozens was too selective, passing up potential chances in favor of trying to set up a linemate for the perfect play. And Year 2 has introduced more important lessons for Cozens.

With Sam Reinhart off to Florida, and Jack Eichel the next to go soon thereafter, Cozens entered training camp intent on being the Sabres’ go-to scorer and first-line center. That standard at such a young age led to his slow start in training camp. It wasn’t until Cozens learned to manage those expectations that he began to see success. And there is still much to learn.

A one-on-one video session with Granato early this season showed Cozens that he needs to protect the puck from defenders who are far better than those he faced with the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. And still lacking the strength to outmuscle much older players, Cozens needed to learn how to use his lower body to elude opponents in the offensive zone.

Faceoffs are still a work in progress – a common deficiency for young centers breaking into the league – as is having to find different ways to contribute when the offense isn’t there some games.

“Dylan is ultra-competitive, super raw and he just wants it,” Sabres alternate captain Kyle Okposo said. “It’s a hard league. It’s hard to play 82 games at an elite level. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world that can do that. Nobody can be on for 82 games. You look at Connor McDavid, the best player in the world, arguably, and he goes through skids. You just have to find out how to be effective in every game you play, no matter what, and I think Dylan is learning how to do that.”

Competitiveness is an overarching trait of the Sabres’ young core. Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams want players who despise losing and possess the burning desire to be the best. That group has a vision for what’s to come. While the road to contending is longer than all involved would prefer, each member of the young core, Cozens included, knows that it’s going to take time and patience.

“It’s helping us for the future,” said Cozens. “Obviously, it’s not this year, but we know we’re going to be a contender in the league. With the group we’re building right now and the guys we have, we’re all super excited about what’s coming in the future. But we can’t think too far ahead.”

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