One of the few bright spots in the mess that was the Buffalo Sabres 2019-20 season was their 1st round pick (7th overall) from the 2019 NHL Draft, Dylan Cozens. His success this year in the WHL and internationally at the World Junior Tournament where he won a Gold Medal generated a lot of buzz among Sabres fans that left some very optimistic about his future with others very cautious about the success he was having.
Success at International Tournaments like the World Juniors is not something that should define how good a prospect is, nor what their future potential should be. Instead, these tournaments should be viewed from the perspective of evaluating the fundamentals of a player’s game as that is what truly impacts their future success in my opinion. The physical traits and stats are great but what I view most important during the WJC is how well a player thinks the game and executes plays at both ends of the ice.
The intent of this article is to highlight what makes Cozens a good prospect while at the same time, differentiating him from other prospects (like a Mittelstadt) to show why we shouldn’t be tempering expectations on Cozens but instead, be very optimistic about the young centerman’s future with the Buffalo Sabres. In this article, I will cover a myriad of topics related to his 2019-20 season and highlight stats, skills, and other things to support my belief that Cozens has a very promising future in the NHL ahead of him.
TCB Analysis of Cozens Pre 2019 Draft
As fans of the team, it’s easy to get enamored with players that are in the organization so I wanted to include some initial thoughts on Cozens that were as objective as possible. Below are the TCB pre-draft analyses on Cozens before he was selected by the Sabres last June. Both Joe and I viewed Cozens as a high end forward with a lot of potential and thus far in his short time with the organization, he has proven he was more than worthy of being selected with the 7th overall pick in 2019.
Dylan Cozens has been a player that I have been really high on throughout the year. He was arguably the best player at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and had a very productive season for the Lethbridge Hurricanes this season. The only real knock that I have seen in Cozens’ game has been hockey sense but other than that I believe that he is the complete package who can be a great option for Buffalo if he’s still there at seven.
Cozens has size, speed, skill, and the ability to put the puck in the back of the net. And he can play center as well, all of those attributes are a dire need for the Buffalo Sabres. Cozens has a chance to step right into the NHL next season simply because of his great skating ability coupled with his NHL ready size. He may not be able to play the entire season but maybe he will get a nine game look with whatever team selects him.
-Joe Marino (@JoeTCBNHL) Pre 2019 NHL Draft
Cozens is a guy that I could see getting that 9 game tryout at the beginning of the year, mostly due to the fact that he is physically one of the few guys ready to make the leap into the NHL at this point in time. He has a very well rounded game to go along with his big frame and is a great skater but I think that his strong stick handling and quick release are what will make him successful in the NHL.
With his tenacious style of play and high hockey IQ, I could see him developing into a center who puts up a lot of points but is also shutting down an opposing team’s top line. He’s just another center in this top 10-12 that has all of the tools needed to be a top 6 forward in the NHL.
-Curtis (@CurtisTCB716) Pre 2019 NHL Draft
Cozens vs. Mittelstadt Debate
As Cozens started putting up points and garnering a lot of attention at the World Juniors, comparisons to Casey Mittelstadt began popping up. While it’s easy to make such a comparison, I cannot emphasize enough just how different the two player’s DY+1 seasons were and that basing a projection of Cozens potential on what Mittelstadt did in the past is not the right way to go about doing this.
Context is important when evaluating a prospect and even more important when comparing two completely different prospects. For this particular evaluation and comparison (Mittelstadt and Cozens), I am going to focus on their draft year (DY) and draft year plus one (DY+1) seasons. The league in which both prospects played is a big factor in all of this but accounting for their age when drafted and even strength production is also important as a few months difference in age at this juncture in their lives can show vast changes in both physical and mental development of a teenager. The chart below uses Byron Bader’s Hockey Prospecting Tool and NHLe model to show how a prospect is developing in critical formative years and how those numbers correlate to future success.
Cozens vs. Mittelstadt NHLe via Hockey Prospecting (Byron Bader)
As seen above, the edge clearly goes to Cozens beginning in the DY+1 season and drastically improves his odds of being a star NHL player, much more so than Mittelstadt who saw a regression in his DY+1 NHLe production. While the NCAA is considered stronger competition relative to the CHL leagues by most NHLe models, it’s the extreme success Cozens had in the WHL that propels his NHLe much higher than Mittelstadt’s freshman season in the NCAA.
Taking things a bit further, I pulled some data from Dave Macpherson’s pick224.com website which allows you to filter stats based on players DY+/- seasons. To further show how much stronger Cozens has been as a prospect than Mittelstadt, I focus on even strength production in their DY+1 as it has historically been a great stat to help project future success for a prospect.
EV P1/GP – Even Strength Primary Points Per Game Played
NHLe EV P1/GP – Even Strength Primary Points Per Game Played Adjusted for NHLe
NHLe – Projected NHL Equivalent Point Production Over 82 GP (All Points)
Note: NHLe has many different models. For the one in the table below I am utilizing the @Mannyelk model which is more conservative than other ones referenced in this article
Taking into account the adjustments for the different leagues both Cozens and Mittelstadt played in, it’s clear to see how much further ahead Cozens projects to be after both prospects DY+1 season. While NHLe isn’t an exact science as evidenced by the many models that calculate it in different ways, the consensus among all of them is that Cozens is developing quicker and has the potential to be much better than Mittelstadt with a higher likelihood of hitting his ceiling. While Mittelstadt is a fine prospect in the organization with a very good skill set, the expectations placed on him at the end of his World Junior performance were unfair and in no way should he be compared to Cozens from a developmental standpoint.
WHL Stats 2019-20: 51 GP | 38 G | 47 A | 85 PTS
World Juniors 2020: 7 GP | 2 G | 7 A | 9 PTS
It was an ultra productive year for Cozens playing in Lethbridge as he dominated from beginning to end. All together, he finished the season with 38 goals, 47 assists, and 85 points in 51 games which was good for 7th overall in the WHL though his points per game of 1.67 was 3rd overall.
Below are a few statistical achievements by Cozens in his 2019-20 campaign in the WHL with the Lethbridge Hurricanes:
- 8 Multi Goal Games
- 3 Hat Tricks
- Tied for 1st in Shorthanded Goals (4)
- 2nd Most SOG/GP (4.88)
- 15.2% Shooting
- 10 Game Point Streak
- 23 Multi Point Games
- Zero Consecutive Games Without a Point
- Points in 42 of 51 Games Played (82%)
- (4) 4+ Point Games
Of all the stats above, the most notable ones for me were 42 of 51 games with a point and never going consecutive games without one. He was as consistent as you can be from a production standpoint which is great considering some of the lofty point totals CHL players get can be inflated by a handful of blowup games. While Cozens did have his fair share of multi point games, it is the fact that he was contributing on the scoresheet on a regular basis that speak volumes to his skillset and potential.
Thanks to data from pick224.com I was able to compare Cozens on a level playing field against his other DY+1 peers. Listed below are some key stats that Cozens ranked very high in out of all DY+1 players who did not play in the NHL. The primary even strength points is very important in my opinion and Cozens ranked very high in this statistic both before and after adjustment for NHLe. The P1/e60 is Primary points per estimated 60 minutes of play as not all leagues provide accurate data in that regard so while it’s nice to see him atop this category, the statistic in general should be taken with a grain of salt.
- 2nd Best P1/e60 (4.05)
- 6th Best EV P1/GP
- 5th Best EV P1/GP Adjusted for NHLe
For the 2nd year in a row, scoring in the WHL was down relative to the other two CHL Leagues (WHL and QMJHL). Just for fun, I adjusted Cozens stat line to see where he would have stacked up approximately had he played in either of those 2 leagues. Note that using the 6.54 Goals/GP in the WHL this year as a baseline, the OHL had 18% more goals per game played than the WHL on average while the QMJHL was 6% more.
OHL Average: 7.72 Goals/GP – Cozens Equivalent Stats |44 G | 55 A | 99 PTS
QMJHL Average: 6.93 Goals/GP – Cozens Equivalent Stats | 40 G | 49 A | 89 PTS
While I don’t think he possesses the explosiveness of Eichel (who does though), Cozens has a long and powerful stride that is very smooth. The efficiency of having such a stride with such a long body pays dividends in the Sports Science department as energy isn’t wasted trying to generate power or speed.
His skating was a huge reason he was able to take over games in the WHL as few players could keep up with him and even trying to keep him to the outside was a fruitless effort because of how quick he is. The legs are constantly moving with Cozens, even when he gets over the blue line and into the circles where it’s a subconscious reflex to start gliding for a lot of players.
Cozens also showed an innate ability to carry the puck out of his own zone and into opposing territory. This controlled zone exit/entry mentality is what is sorely lacking in the Sabres organization so he should be able to immediately add value to the lineup when he does make it to the NHL.
Having the ability to take an already strong and efficient stride to the professional level where it can be refined even more is only going to give Cozens the edge at the next level as he continues to get stronger. He’s going to be the star at Development Camp this summer and all eyes will be on him through Training Camp to see how much he has grown his game.
If there’s one thing that will elevate Cozens to a top line NHL player, it will be his high Hockey IQ. What pops out with Cozens is his awareness/positioning when not in possession of the puck. Often times he would trail a play long enough to allow him to enter the high slot with space and time to shoot. Finding these “soft” spots in the offensive zone gives a player a split second edge in decision making and execution.
His patience when in possession of the puck was also a big indicator that he thinks the game at a very high level. His understanding that the longer he holds onto the puck that it will open up ice for his teammates is a great trait to have for a prospect and something that is an instinctive skill rather than learned. This allows him to use his excellent vision to be a great playmaker to set up scoring chances and goals.
The great vision and play making mentality he has would be for naught without his exceptional passing ability. There’s little hesitation when he decides to make a pass and he is not afraid to thread it through defenders sticks to set up a play in the offensive zone. This is what made him very dangerous on the power play as teams had to respect not only his shot but also his smart accurate passes.
Another aspect of his game that was solid last season was his defensive play. Being a center requires a lot of Hockey IQ and while he did admirably at the Junior level, he’s going to get challenged greatly to maintain his good defensive tendencies at the NHL level. He was a regular on the penalty kill unit for Lethbridge and used his speed to backcheck quite often so the effort and understanding of his role as a center is definitely there but something he will need to continue to develop. Starting him on the wing in the NHL is probably the best option right out of the gate, with a gradual transition to center over the next 2-3 years. The hope is that he can become a defensively responsible 2nd line center who has the skillset of a 1st line player.
Overall, his desire to maintain puck possession screams that he is a play driving center. Couple this with the calmness he exhibits with the puck and his offensive skill set, and it’s very easy to see why he is the defacto number one prospect in the system. Having this type of poise at such a young age is going to get challenged as the competition and speed get elevated around him. However, he shows clearly in many of the clips above that he is more than capable of slowing the game down so that opponents are reacting to him and not vice versa.
Goal Scoring Versatility
The way in which Cozens scored his goals all season was a consistent theme in the Prospect Notebooks. He displayed goal scorer tendencies in his seemingly natural ability to always be in position to shoot. I’ve highlighted a few of these goals below and its clear that his natural goal scoring ability may be underrated as it was not a point of emphasis on most scouting reports before he was drafted.
While I think very highly of him as a goal scorer, one aspect of his offensive game that can improve is the velocity of his shot. As putting on more muscle mass will naturally increase shot velocity, I don’t see it as being an issue long term because he has a great release on his wrist shot and sound form on his slapshot/one-timer. Having said that, I don’t anticipate him carrying over the goal scoring ability to the NHL for a few years.
As noted above, Cozens has a great release on his wrist shot which gave WHL goalies fits. He was able to score near the top of the circle or high slot with this shot and as he adds muscle to his large frame, this shot has the potential to be dangerous at the next level.
Front of the Net
Both of Cozens’ goals at the World Junior Tournament came with him in front of the net. One being a tip in while screening the goalie and the other being a tap in at the side of the net. The tip in was something we’ve seen a lot of from Sam Reinhart on the Powerplay and is something guys can make a living on with the man advantage.
His other WJC goal at the side of the net is something he did frequently for Lethbridge showing great timing and patience to find open areas. While the WJC goal was on a 5 on 3 Powerplay, the key is him staying in position and waiting for the puck to come to him. He’s shown good instincts about when to head to the front or side of the net where there’s open ice and timing it right for the puck to bounce to him for an easy goal.
Lethbridge frequently used Cozens on his off wing on the Powerplay, similar to the way the Sabres deployed Eichel. From this spot, Cozens picked up a few goals off the one-timer and also created chances on rebounds from his shots. He has great form here as the back swing doesn’t get too high and he opens himself up to receive the pass while keeping his frame square relative to the net. The leverage he generates from his size and good technique make his one-timer a great weapon in his shot arsenal.
My Personal Favorite
This goal was probably my favorite of the entire year for Cozens as it exemplifies basically all of the traits that make him a great prospect. While the way the puck enters the net wasn’t pretty, the entire sequence leading up to it was brilliant. He slams the breaks on the half wall when there’s no play and instead of dumping it down low he turns and circles back to maintain possession. At this point he starts moving his feet and accelerates around the defender with his head up knowing the puck needs to get to the front of the net. In an attempt to make a play with a backhand pass to the slot, it bounces off a defender and in so I love the fact that his intent this entire time was to put the puck in an area that would lead to a scoring chance. The edge work and speed after making the turn highlights his exceptional skating ability and hanging onto the puck when pressed without an option to dish it off to a teammate made this goal basically the complete package of what Cozens offers.
Development and Projection
A tool that I like to use to evaluate prospects is the NHL Rank King App developed by Mason Black (@NHLRankKing) which attempts to predict a player’s point ceiling at the NHL level based on factors such as age, current NHLe, and league of play. The (3) data points in the chart below show Cozens has consistently produced at a 1st line potential from his DY-1 Season through his DY+1 season. While this doesn’t mean he is a lock to be a 75 point producer at the NHL level, it’s certainly encouraging that his offensive production is trending up as he gets older.
Cozens pNHLe Trend NHL Rank King App
As evidenced by Joshua Khalfin’s chart below which tracks a players NHLe as the season progressed, Cozens elevated his game as the year went on. He peaked with an NHLe of about 40 in early March and ended up just above 39 when the season was cancelled. This ending to the year after he reached a season low 35 back in November shows that he developed his game from an offensive production standpoint.
Cozens 2019-20 NHLe Trend (Joshua Khalfin Prospect Tracker)
Given the strides he made this season relative to his peers, I believe Cozens would be in consideration to be drafted in the top 5 more so than he was this time last year. He checked all the boxes you want to see from a player in their DY+1 season and will likely be on the Sabres next year but his role is up in the air due to his inexperience in the NHL and the unknown status of how the roster will be built.
Improvements in his skating, offensive production, and defensive awareness give me a lot optimism that he is outpacing the initial expectations I had for him. As a center, the defensive portion of his game is extremely important so maintaining and continuing to develop that skill will challenge him greatly as he plays at a higher level in the coming years.
Long term, Cozens seems like a lock to be a top 6 forward who could even challenge for top line minutes with the size/speed/skill combination he offers. As we have learned with the Sabres over the years, if something can go wrong, it typically has but the development and future of Cozens is extremely bright and he has the ability to overcome any shortcomings within the organization.
Many thanks to all who provided video clips, gifs, stats, data, images, and much more. There’s a lot of people in the hockey community who made the depth of this article possible so I appreciate everything that you all do greatly!
- Jared Halt | The Charging Buffalo Admin | @JaredHalt
- Joe Marino | The Charging Buffalo Contributor | @JoeTCBNHL
- Mason Black | NHL Rank King App | @NHLRankKing
- Manny | Corsica and NHLe Numbers | @mannyelk
- Byron Bader | Hockeyprospecting.com | @ByronMBader
- Dave Macpherson | Pick224.com | @Davemacp
- Joshua Khalfan | 2020 Prospect Tracker
- Josh Tessler | Dobber Prospects | @JoshTessler_