After the selections of Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko first and second overall by the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers in this year’s NHL Entry Draft on June 21, it was anyone’s guess how the rest of the first round would shape up.
As it happened, the Chicago Blackhawks took Kirby Dach third, the Colorado Avalanche selected Bowen Byram fourth, the L.A. Kings picked Alex Turcotte, and the Detroit Red Wings surprised many selecting Germany’s Mortiz Seider sixth overall.
That put the Buffalo Sabres and general manager Jason Botterill on the clock, where the organization selected Whitehorse’s Dylan Cozens from the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes — making Cozens the first Yukoner ever selected in the first round of the NHL draft.
“It means so much,” said Cozens about his historic accomplishment at his first media availability with the team on draft night. “I have so much support up there in the Yukon and I know there are so many people that are watching tonight and my phone is going to be absolutely blowing up when I check it.”
Botterill said the club was excited to make the pick.
“It was an excellent draft — I think that’s also why you didn’t see a lot of trades today,” said Botterill after the first round. “People were excited about their picks — they knew they would be getting a good player. Obviously, we were very excited with Dylan still being there, but I wouldn’t say we were surprised by it.”
Scouting reports on Cozens were consistent all season, Botterill said, explaining his size, speed, versatility and two-way game made him a good fit for the team.
“It’s not just speed. The way he plays, he pushes the pace quite a bit out there,” said Botterill. “Playing centre, playing wing, his ability to play a two-way game — there are so many different attributes — and when you look over our report trail with him all year — whether it was the (Hlinka Gretzky Cup) in August, throughout the year, (the IIHF U18 World Championship) at the end of the year — he was very consistent from that standpoint, so we felt very comfortable making the selection there.”
Cozens’ path to the NHL is well-documented — leaving home at 14, getting called up for the WHL playoffs at 15 — and he credits his parents for giving him the opportunity to get here.
“They’ve sacrificed so much for me to get to this point,” said Cozens. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
Botterill said the path was “very unique” and reflective of the Yukoner’s character.
“To me, you talk to him a little bit about growing up and minor hockey in Yukon and having to leave home at such a young age and showing a maturity to that,” said Botterill. “(It’s) just reflective of a difficult path, but in his mind it hasn’t been difficult — it’s just what you have to do to accomplish your dreams.”
Asked if he’d be ready for the NHL this fall, Cozens said he’d take whatever opportunity was put in front of him.
“If I’m privileged enough to and they want me to play, I believe I’ll be ready for it,” said Cozens. “If not, I’ll go back to Lethbridge and I’ll lead that team there.”
The Sabres have holes all over the depth chart, so a player like Cozens who can play both centre and wing could have an edge that helps crack the roster — although Botterill tempered questions about Cozens joining the team next season with some context.
“You always want your players to come in and have that belief and we’re certainly going to give him an opportunity,” said Botterill. “I’ve been on record saying there are maybe one or two, maybe three players that will step in and play in the National Hockey League this year. Probably the best thing for any player is to go back to junior and have that other year of development, but we’ll see how the summer goes. Dylan is a very good athlete, has great size and a great frame, but he certainly has to get stronger and it is certainly a big jump to the National Hockey League from junior.”
Cozens and the rest of the newly-drafted Sabres will be in Buffalo for the team’s annual summer development camp from June 26 to 29, and Cozens was also selected to attend Hockey Canada’s National Junior Team Summer Development Camp in Michigan from July 27 to Aug. 4.
All that time competing against the best in the organization and in the country should only help to further develop the teenager.
“Obviously he has a unique background growing up in Yukon, but there is a drive in there — a motivating factor — and his worth ethic and a knowledge of what he has to work on in his game,” said Botterill. “That really came across in the meetings — that he was driven to become a National Hockey League player — (and) understanding that he wasn’t there yet, there is still a lot of work to do, which is the case with so many of these 18-year-olds. But that sort of dedication, that plan, really came through.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org