Toward the end of last season, Dylan Cozens’ play on the ice and his words off it hinted that he is ready to step into a leadership role with the Buffalo Sabres. The pride of Whitehorse, Yukon will have the chance to prove he’s ready for it in the upcoming season.
His willingness to step up is good news for the Sabres, because with Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen gone — and Jack Eichel‘s status a topic of covert general manager meetings — there are vacancies to be filled at the top.
During an appearance with John Scott on the Dropping the Gloves podcast, Cozens made it clear that he believes the team will surprise many people this year. His argument was simple: Once general manager Kevyn Adams traded some of the older players last season, and the younger guys on the team started to get more ice time, things turned around.
“After the trade deadline last year, we moved some of our older guys, and the younger guys got more opportunity,” he said. “Our record was better. We started beating Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington — we were beating those teams.”
Cozens Not Oblivious to Sabre-rattling
Cozens isn’t unaware that most people have written the Sabres off as a 32nd-place team. They’ve traded away key pieces, opted not to bring back either of their goalies from last year, and seem primed to finish low in the league and high on the draft board. Even with the new additions.
Which, for a rebuilding team, is exactly what you’d like to see.
But athletes don’t like to lose. It’s not just about pride, either. These guys have their entire careers resting on the fact that they show up and try to win every night, even if the management’s game plan is to engineer a controlled descent.
“I think lots of people have very low expectations for us. They think we’re going to be last place again,” Cozens said. “But, I don’t think we see that for ourselves. I think we could come out and surprise a lot of people.”
Playing a Big Boy Game Against the Big Boys of the League
Cozens surprised some people when he had the tenacity to drop the gloves on more than one occasion last season, fighting Kevin Rooney and Ryan Lindgren of the New York Rangers in a couple of different games.
It’s not something the Sabres want him doing all the time. Best to save those nifty mittens for where they’ll be more effective — like putting pucks in the net. But it’s a facet of his game he’s not afraid to bring out when the time calls for it.
“That side to me may not be as visible as I think it is,” he told Scott. “I think people didn’t expect (those fights) to happen. But I know that’s a side of me that I’ve always had. I don’t want to do that all the time. I want to bring other parts of my game.”
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Aside from the fisticuffs, Cozens showed a ton of mettle and no shortage of promise when facing off against superstars like Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and Nicklas Backstrom. With the NHL returning to its normal divisional setup when the puck drops in October, he’ll get to add guys like Auston Matthews and Brayden Point to that list.
“It was so fun to line up against those guys for the whole game,” he said. “It is a little surreal playing against those guys when I was idolizing them just years ago. But I think it does push me (to) that extra gear just to shut them down.”
Cozens Role One of Many Storylines
One of the many storylines to follow with this Sabres group is how things shake out down the middle of their lineup. Cozens’ wish to take on a bigger role could be granted, as a crop of younger players will be vying for topline center minutes out of training camp.
Battles on the blueline will also be intriguing to follow, and how the top-six group of wingers shakes out and is adjusted will be a test for head coach Don Granato.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.