It was a little over a year ago — June 21, 2019, if you’re keeping score at home — when Whitehorse’s Dylan Cozens made history as the seventh overall pick in the NHL entry draft.
His selection by the Buffalo Sabres marked the beginning of a very impressive and very unusual year for the young centre.
Cozens was impressive in his training camp and preseason appearances with the Sabres but was sent back to the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes for the regular season.
The Yukoner played well in junior, ending the season as the WHL Eastern Conference Player of the Year and a runner up for the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy given to the league’s player of the year.
Over the New Year, he was a key piece in Team Canada capturing gold at the IIHF 2020 World Junior Championship.
When the season stopped due to COVID-19, Cozens was leading his team with 85 points and the Hurricanes were poised for a playoff run.
It was not a surprise then, to see Cozens named as one of 41 invited to the Canadian junior team’s summer development camp.
“Being a part of that team already, I definitely expected to be invited back to the camp,” Cozens told the News during an interview in June. “But obviously you’re always relieved about it. You know it’s another chance to represent your country, so it’s definitely exciting and the camp is definitely going to be a little different this year.”
The virtual camp is scheduled for July 27 to 31, and will have players “participating in a variety of sessions with a focus on player development through online education” according to a release from Hockey Canada.
With the NHL season start for next year likely delayed until after the championships, this year’s tournament could include deeper rosters more akin to the 2005 tournament than any since.
Of the 41 invited to camp, seven are returning from last year’s team.
“The experience is definitely huge,” Cozens said. “Knowing what it takes to win and having to battle through adversity. So many guys did this year and so many guys are returning. … I know this team is going to be really good this year.”
Cozens said he’s completely focused on making the Sabres out of training camp, and has been all along.
“My goal is to play in the NHL when next season starts and I don’t know when that is going to be,” Cozens said. “There is still a lot to be decided with the junior season as well, so the biggest thing is just being ready for anything, getting my body stronger to compete with NHL players and just being ready to play whenever the time is.”
The WHL released early plans to start the season in October pending the COVID-19 situation as the fall draws closer, so if things go according to plan junior hockey will likely resume months before the NHL starts its next season — meaning Cozens may be back in junior for a spell regardless of how his development goes.
“I’ve talked about that briefly with some of the Buffalo development staff and there is no real plan set for that,” Cozens said. “My goal is to be an NHL player this season. I want to play in the NHL. If (the Sabres) want me to go to junior and play there for a couple months before the NHL season starts, I’ll do that. It’d be cool to see my friends again and be a part of that team again, but my goal is to play in the NHL as soon as I can.”
It has quickly turned into a busy offseason for the Sabres, who jettisoned most of their front office — including the general manager who picked Cozens last year — but he said the organization has been doing well to keep up with his training and development from across the continent.
“The development staff in Buffalo have been doing a really good job,” Cozens said. “The trainers there have been talking to my trainer up here and they’ve been in contact lots and they’re on the same page. … They’ve been in really good contact, so it’s good to see.”
When Cozens spoke to the News, he was planning to leave Whitehorse soon to go somewhere with ice. He said he hadn’t skated in an arena since March and that getting back on the ice was paramount.
“It’s definitely tough not having ice up here when all my buddies are down skating in other places. The people I’m competing against are skating, so I’m going to have to get out of Whitehorse, probably pretty soon here, and find some ice.”
Despite the challenges in getting ready for next year, Cozens has the perspective of a veteran.
“The biggest thing is just focusing on what you can control,” Cozens said. “What I can control is how hard I work and that’s what I’m doing. I’m working as hard as I can now to be the best player I can be come the time the season starts.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org