Sabres Go to the Yukon to Improve

The Buffalo Sabres have a long way to improve. They just traveled nearly 3,400 miles.

Size. Strong skating. A great shot. Dylan Cozens, an 18-year-old center from Whitehorse, Canada, has the tools to make an impact. And he’s exactly what the doctor ordered for the Sabres, who drafted him with the seventh overall pick Friday night in Vancouver at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

“I’d say my strength is my skating–that’s the biggest thing. Being able to use my speed to create separation between other players and allowing time and space for myself and my teammates,” said Cozens, adding, “I’m more of a shoot-first guy.”

Sabres Snag Best Player Available

Sabres general manager Jason Botterill had to be chomping at the bit when Cozens was still on the board. The team desperately needs centers in the organization. Actually, Botterill had the luxury of choice with Cozens, American Trevor Zegras, and Canadian Peyton Krebs still up for grabs. High-scoring winger Cole Caufield may have been a temptation.

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Cozens was a consensus high pick, likely to be taken fourth, fifth or sixth. Many mock drafts predicted he would be off the board by the seventh pick.

The 6-foot-3 standout at Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League is a powerful skater. Over the last two seasons with the Hurricanes, he put up 56 goals and 81 assists in 125 games. He added 11 goals and 10 assists in 23 playoff games. Last season, his 84 points (in 68 games) were tied for 10th in the league.

Dylan Cozens, Dominik Jendek
Cozens became the first-ever player from Yukon to be selected in the first round. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan)

Cozens served as an alternate captain for Canada at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship, scoring four goals among nine points in seven games.

Growing Up in the Yukon

It was a groundbreaking moment for Cozens, who was born in Whitehorse, the largest city in the Yukon. No player from the Yukon had ever been selected in the first round of the NHL Draft. In fact, only two others have ever appeared in an NHL game – Peter Sturgeon (six games from 1979-81) and Bryon Baltimore (two games in 1979-80). He’s overcome incredible odds to make it to the NHL.

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The young man is proud of his background and representing the Yukon.

“It’s something I’ve work towards my whole life, and now I know a whole new journey has just begun,” said a smiling Cozens while wearing a navy Sabres jersey. “I’m happy to be that guy that kind of gives it back for hockey in the Yukon. It always felt like a far-fetched dream, not really achievable. But I believed it, believed in myself I could make this happen one day.”

From His Backyard to Buffalo

Cozens grew up playing hockey in his backyard on a rink his father built. Given the bone-chilling temperatures in Whitehorse, the rink often lasted nearly half a year. He quickly honed his skills and in order to find competition, began skating in an adult recreational league.

That made sense in theory. But it was far from practical. During one game, Cozens was racing to pick up a loose puck against another skater. The opponent – an adult – fell, taking Cozens out and breaking his leg.

“We both went into the boards with him behind me, so he crushed it. He was 230 pounds or so, and I was only 12 years old,” Cozens recalls. “He was a big guy, just playing in a beer league. It wasn’t ideal, for sure. I knew I had to get away.”

It was a terrifying scene for Cozens’ parents, who decided to let their son leave to pursue his dream of playing hockey at the young age of 14.

After healing, he left Whitehorse and played at Yale Hockey Academy Prep then joined Lethbridge. His family has been incredibly supportive.

Dylan Cozens Lethbridge Hurricanes
Cozens is a big forward who can put the puck in the net. (Robert Murray/WHL)

“It was definitely really tough on me and family being so young, leaving them behind. And moving to a bigger city was different. But it was necessary for me if I wanted to chase my dreams and goals,” said Cozens, mindful to note his parents’ sacrifice. “It was my WHL draft year, so I wanted to get some exposure for myself. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change it at all.”

Cozens is a big fan of Chicago Blackhawks’ center Jonathan Toews. He considers him a role model for his work on and off the ice.

Sabres Fans’ First Look at Cozens

Cozens is the first Canadian junior player Botterill’s ever taken. In two full drafts, he had not selected a single one.

Jason Botterill Buffalo Sabres
Botterill finally removed the stigma that he hadn’t selected a Canadian junior player. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

“Guys who can move the way he moves at that size are rare,” said Adam Kimelman with the NHL.com. “When you add in talent, the work ethic, the skill, the hands in-tight, the shot… he’s the complete package.”

Cozens will likely be on the ice in Buffalo this week when the Sabres host their development camp. Fans will get a first look at what he brings. Even with a stellar camp, and though the team has a void at the center position, it’s not likely Cozens will make the immediate jump to the NHL for the 2019-20 season. Botterill has a track record of patience with developing prospects.

Related: Sabres Development Camp & Preseason Schedule Announced

The 183-pound Cozens still needs to fill out his frame and add muscle if he wants to compete in the NHL. Though primarily a center, he could also play wing–another Sabres position that needs an upgrade.

“I believe I can make the jump and play in the NHL next year,” said Cozens. “I want to be a contributor from the start of my career. I want to be a guy that makes a difference.”