The Pegulas cleaned house, the current situation looks bleak, but it’s a clean slate for a change in the front office. I genuinely want this new direction to work for everyone involved, from ownership all the way to fans halfway across the world, we just want to win. Unfortunately, that won’t happen for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There is no other choice but to look forward to the draft and next season with a new crew calling the shots. While it seems the light at the end of the tunnel has regressed into the abyss when it comes to high end Sabres prospects, there is a 19 year old who looks poised to make an impact as a rookie this upcoming season.
I am of the belief that Dylan Cozens is a lock to make the Sabres. I say this with confidence for a number of factors that deserve diving into before looking at possible line mates once he makes the team.
First, he’s a versatile player with NHL speed and an NHL shot. His hands won’t dazzle you out of your seat on a nightly basis, but they’re good enough to make plays and handle the puck in traffic, using his big 6’3″ frame to keep stick checks to a minimum. He’s solid defensively and while there is a learning curve for any young player, he’s not going to be a major liability like other rookies can be.
It will take time for his hands to catch up to NHL speed, especially with an extended offseason going into his rookie year. There may be instances where his feet and mind are moving faster than his hands at the NHL level, but he was still highly productive in the best junior league in the world, the CHL (We’re not hear to debate WHL vs OHL vs QMJHL).
When Cozens was drafted, Bob McKenzie slipped in “he has some skill, but his skill is not off the chart” at the 2019 NHL draft, that was in comparison to guys around him at the top of the draft. While McKenzie was right, while playmaking and dangling defenders might not be Cozens’ best attributes, they are very good compliments to superior skills (skating and shooting) that are ready for the NHL.
Second, Cozens would have to go back to Lethbridge as he’s still not of age where he could play for Rochester. After a campaign of 38 goals and 47 assists for 85 points in 51 games, it’s clear Cozens has nothing left for him in the WHL. He development is matched closest to Alex Tanguay, who started playing in the NHL in the 2nd season after his draft.
For reference, Alex Tanguay’s career stats:
In his D+2 year, Tanguay produced 17 goals and 34 assist for 51 points in 70 games (D+2 NHLe projects a full 82 game season, hence showing 55 points). While it’s an awesome comparison when thinking of what Cozens might be able to accomplish, there is a lot of context behind Tanguay’s success that Cozens doesn’t have the luxury of.
Simply as players, Tanguay was more of a playmaker than a power forward like Cozens. Tanguay joined a perennial playoff team in 1999-2000 (won the Stanley Cup in 1995 and later in 2001). He was playing with guys like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Chris Drury, Adam Foote, Sandis Ozolins, Brian Rolston and Patrick Roy (who is close to being as great as Dominik Hasek). Heck, they brought in Ray Bourque and Dave Andreychuk for about 14 games a piece too for their playoff run.
Cozens is walking into a team that has achieved 80 points in the standings once since the start of the lockout shortened 2012-13 season (81 in 2015-16). Yes, he’ll be playing with guys like Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart, but Tanguay was part of a significantly deeper roster and a winning culture.
I hope this reiterates keeping expectations low, not because Cozens isn’t worthy of high expectations, but the team around him has a very limited track record of sustained success.
Third, the Sabres need Cozens’ speed and cheap cap hit. While it definitely improved from 2018-19, the 2019-20 Sabres still looked slow. Injecting Cozens’ straight line speed and high motor that can play wing or center is the most desirable trait for this team. I kind of think of it like Evander Kane’s straight line speed, without the shot from the corner that might miss and give the opposition a free breakout.
As I mentioned, the Sabres will also need the $925K cap hit to work for them with Cozens. As we all remember, Michael Frolik’s entire contract was brought in on January 2, half of Wayne Simmond’s was brought in at the trade deadline on February 24. With $6.8 million locked in with those two players and “playing meaningful games in March” was on the horizon, the Sabres proceeded to go 0-6-1 before the season was cut short.
To add salt to the wound, the Sabres will have less cap space next season due to overage penalties as a direct result of Jason Botterill’s handling of the salary cap.
This is why it’s vital for Cozens to be able to make the team and contribute next year from a cap perspective. If the Sabres can squeeze production out of him that far outweighs the value of $925K, that’s best case scenario in the next season.
Finally, we can look at Cozens in a different light when playing in the bottom six unlike Mittelstadt, Nylander and Grigorenko if you want to take it back a bit. These three are purely skill guys playing in roles where their linemates stunk and it was hard to produce. None of that is a concern to me when it comes to Cozens.
Cozens is a more F1 type of forward that will go to work in the corners on a chip and chase than the aforementioned prospects. He’s a modern day power forward and as a rookie, he is easier to plug in up and down the lineup than those who only succeed on the Sabres if they’re in the top six.
Who do I think would well as linemates for Cozens during his rookie season? My choice might surprise you.
It’s important to note Cozens will likely have a plethora of linemates next season for a variety of reasons including injuries, lineup changes, mid-game switches for a spark, etc.
I’m analyzing the names below because they are either under contract or under team control as an RFA. I have a feeling a RFA or two won’t be returning, but I’m not here to make predictions on that, so we will go through all of them. Also, this is more of a playing style matchup and what works in theory, mostly because the analytical data from the WHL is rather scarce.
So, who would I think might work well with Dylan Cozens in his rookie Who do I think would well as linemates for Cozens during his rookie season? My picks might surprise you.
Jack Eichel – I’m hesitant to believe the Sabres want to give Cozens top line minutes in his first professional season, but two skilled, power forwards on the same line would handful for opposing teams.
That said, Jack is the center and Reinhart is his right winger on that first line. Unless shown otherwise, there is no reason to assume it’ll be anything different next season.
Would something like Olofsson – Eichel – Cozens or Skinner – Eichel – Cozens work? Yes, it probably would because it’s Jack Eichel, but it’s unlikely to happen for an extended period of time next season.
Sam Reinhart – I think Cozens and Reinhart could have success together, but that requires one of them playing center next season. Even though it’s a long way out, not many are penciling in either as a center and neither am I.
Despite numerous comments from former GM Jason Botterill about his belief in Sam and his ability to drive his own line, we haven’t seen him given this opportunity. Since he first made those comments, two coaches have refused to pull Sam away from Jack. It works, so there is a pretty low threshold where complaints of leaving those two together are acceptable, especially if Jack wants him on his right wing. You have to do whatever you can to keep Eichel happy at this point.
Marcus Johansson – One of Marcus Johansson’s best traits (yet it was one he struggled with last season) is carrying the puck through the neutral zone into the offensive zone with speed. Cozens plays the same way. We saw this on display during the preseason as seen below:
Why not spread that skillset around? Guys like Eichel, Johansson and Cozens all like to gain the zone with speed and the puck on their stick. Putting MoJo with Cozens could limit each others abilities to maximize this specific skillset.
Would Johansson’s setup abilities go well with Cozens rifle of a shot? Probably, but I think there are better options. If Cozens does end up on Johansson’s line, I’d rather see Cozens at center as a rookie than Johansson in the middle for another year.
It might be an outside the box idea, but I like it. Putting Cozens with Skinner instantly improves the likelihood of Cozens producing points. I know Skinner had a down year, but I’m going by his track record on assuming that will not continue (if it does, the Sabres have yet another serious problem).
Cozens has the skating ability and reach to get in on the forecheck and cause problems for defensemen. This is referred to commonly as “F1”.
Skinner is a roamer.
He can snag rebounds on plays driving the net or get himself into open space for a quality chance on net. The video below shows he’s able to get outside of defenders, drop his shoulder and get towards the net on NHL defensemen. If he’s able to get the puck on net for a rebound, there’s another way to put Skinner’s finishing ability to good use.
At times, there might need to be another play made from the time Cozens causes the turnover on the forecheck and Skinner getting the puck, but that’s what F1 and F2 are for; the first man takes the body, the second man gets the puck.
Finding the player that can do this will be vital if they want Cozens and Skinner to work next season.
That’s not to say Skinner isn’t good on the forecheck, he can create turnovers too, so the dynamic a multiple players that can force turnovers in the offensive end can keep sustained pressure alive and generate high danger scoring chances.
Playing alongside a player like Skinner can help push the defensive line back too. Getting more room for Cozens to use his speed or headman the puck while Skinner is looking more room to operate when he’s roaming looking for the opportunity to pounce.
Cozens can look for home run passes if there is a chance or use the space created to generate speed. While this is only one example, this shows the hockey IQ and playmaking ability when a player is trying to spring past the defense.
Cozens isn’t forcing it through the defenseman, he’s letting Sheary run and getting the puck to him indirectly. The puck didn’t find the back of the net because the Sabres lost 3-0, but imagine him feeding passes like that to a springing Skinner. Just the threat of that could keep opposing defenses at arms length so they don’t get burned, giving Cozens and Skinner a little more room to operate.
Even though I think the dynamic of those two together could work, the lack of depth at center makes it difficult to pinpoint how productive they would be. Skinner isn’t setting guys up all that much and I don’t think anyone, including myself, wants the pressure of producing offensively placed on Cozens shoulders.
Any linemate of Skinner’s will be forced under the microscope with him next season. Also, depending on how many minutes Ralph Krueger wants to give Cozens as opposed to Skinner, it might not be a fit for him. I would counter by saying Skinner will play on the powerplay and Cozens will need to play on the penalty kill for his extra minutes if he earns it. As long as they are a disciplined team, Skinner’s minutes should well surpass Cozens’.
This is one pairing I’m not as keen on, at least for next year. Olofsson is better suited on Eichel’s wing where he has the best player on the team feeding his wicked shot. While Cozens could certainly spring on the scene as an underrated playmaker as a rookie, it’s best to not expect that, even though I believe it’s in him.
Frankly, I want Krueger to slide Cozens in the Olofsson/Eichel shooters position on the second powerplay if he looks good there in practice. Keeping the triangle above the circles of Eichel-Dahlin-Olofsson on PP1 seems like it’s a no brainer as long as it’s producing. He did it in juniors and it’s a top asset of his, let his shot be a threat for whatever time is left after Eichel’s unit has come off.
While, Olofsson has his faults on the defensive end, it’s not from a lack of effort. He was caught watching a few times last season, he’s has a smaller build and he was a rookie last season, it’s going to happen. As long as he’s producing offensively and isn’t a constant defensive detriment, he shouldn’t be throttled for his defensive play.
Thrusting Cozens into a situation where he’s relied upon defensively more than necessary is the not the ideal situation next season. A year or two down the road Olofsson could be a real weapon on Cozens’ wing, but for next year it’s best to just leave him with Eichel and let pucks hit the back of the net.
We only received a small sample size of Kahun in a Sabres uniform, but I mostly liked what I saw. He’s a player that can dart into open spaces, using his quick feet to get out once he’s caused a turnover or he’s retrieving a puck.
Remember when I said Skinner and Cozens could use someone as their F2? Kahun strikes me as the type of player that can do that better than most on this team. Granted, I’m unsure of Kahun’s ceiling as a playmaker, but in theory, Cozens with Kahun could be a underrated 1-2 punch when battling for pucks.
Not every play is about an F1-F2 dump and chase, Kahun also has the ability to setup players springing like Cozens. The play below doesn’t showcase Skinner, but Kahun stops in his own end, makes a beautiful lead pass to Johansson who sets up Vesey, only to get stuffed by Matt Murray.
This kind of passing can translate into my earlier point about Skinner trying to spring ahead and look for breaks. It could also be effective with Cozens blazing up the right side since we know he’ll take it to the next if he gets a step on the defenseman.
Look, the Sabres flat out need more scoring. I’m not saying they need to cherry pick all game, but if someone sees an opportunity to get behind the defense, they should have the green light to run and gun.
I’m not sure how explosive Kahun can be scoring wise, he seems like he could get around 40-45 points in a good situation, but much like my feelings towards Cozens, I have low expectations due to a small sample size.
Now, who would be the center? Cozens? I’d like to stay away from that if possible. Kahun? He hasn’t played center in the NHL, only overseas. There’s where I stumble to find the proper situation, especially when it comes to defensive responsibilities. Kahun and Cozens on the wings would be ideal, but if that forces Marcus Johansson in between them, I think I will pass on that.
I’m putting all my chips in on the Sabres resigning Larsson and keeping Okposo with him. If it happens, I hope Cozens can help Okposo produce closer to contract value, but that also means Cozens is on the 4th line. I believe he can make an impact even with 4th line minutes, but that could limit his growth.
If Thompson is on the Sabres, it’ll likely be in a bottom 6 role, where Cozens is expected to play. Thompson could squeak into the top-6, but that doesn’t give me much confidence going into next season if that’s the case.
While they both lack some playmaking ability for teammates (relatively speaking, they’re not completely one dimensional, yet Thompson is more one dimensional than Cozens), having two ridiculous shots and big bodies on the same line could bring a unique blend of size and skill.
Could it work? I think it could. To maximize the effectiveness of both players, they would need a veteran setup man as the other forward on their line. Maybe if you put Johansson on Cozen’s left wing and Thompson on his right wing there could be a spark, but the longevity of success this line would have is concerning.
For a player I want to see start in Rochester, I don’t expect Mittelstadt to be on Cozens’ line the majority of next season. It could work in the future, but they’re on different trajectories right now. Who knows, maybe Cozens is what Mittelstadt needed and they click in training camp, but that’s probably wishful thinking.
Come back to me after next season about Cozens and Mittelstadt together and I’ll have a more definitive answer.
There will be two separate lines. The first being the one I think looks best on paper playing style wise if they can find chemistry early. The second is the line I believe Head Coach Ralph Krueger will deploy most often.
Skinner – Cozens – Kahun
This probably isn’t a surprise from what I’ve already said about Skinner and Kahun, but I have more to add about the dynamic of these three together.
I’ve kept analytics out of this for the most part, but I felt compelled to show this comparison for Kahun and Skinner. This specific chart showing offensive contributions and transitional play shows Skinner and Kahun could make up for each other’s weaknesses.
The issue of who would play center and how will they perform defensively? I’ve said I’d prefer Cozens to play on the wing and I stick by that, but I’d rather have Cozens at center than Kahun.
Cozens may be lanky right now, but he has a longer reach, stride and has top end speed to keep up with the play once the puck is broken out to a winger. It’s not ideal, but a dynamic of Cozens doing the dirty work, Kahun making plays and Skinner’s finishing ability makes enough sense that I’d risk a rookie center.
Defensively, it’s shaky, but so has the Sabres team defense for years now. As shown in Micah Blake McCurdy’s RAPM charts below, Kahun and Cozens will have to make up for Skinner’s defensive deficiencies.
Kahun shows slight positives when it comes to defensive impacts pertaining to expected goals against and Corsi against per 60 minutes. Basically, he’s not hurting the team defensively, but he’s also not shutting players down.
Another pain point I can foresee is Skinner’s offensive production while playing with Kahun and Cozens, but with a question mark at the 2C position, this seems like the best fit for a line right now. While I’m also an advocate for Skinner with Larsson, I like Cozens’ offensive upside more than Larsson’s.
We may not see another 40 goal season from Skinner unless he’s with Eichel at 5v5, but with first powerplay unit minutes and the most 5v5 minutes out of any middle six player, there’s no reason Skinner shouldn’t be able to put up a 30 goal season. He’s a streaky scorer, so when he’s hot, putting him with Cozens could pay dividends for both players.
Kahun – Johansson – Cozens
This is the line I believe Ralph Krueger will deploy most often. Again, lines are likely to change frequently until chemistry is developed. I believe Cozens will be moved around more than other players, especially in the beginning of the season.
Head Coach Ralph Krueger stuck with Johansson at center for most, if not all, of last season. Sabres fans expect deals to be made, but until another center is brought in, then Johansson is still likely to play center. Putting Cozens with two skill players and veterans to professional hockey certainly cannot hurt, but if the Sabres want to maximize the use of Cozens, they should try something unconventional like putting him with a high volume scorer like Skinner.
Thank you for reading this novel of an article, there are so many routes that would be feasible, so I look forward to the continued conversation on who Cozens should play with his rookie year.