For the first time since settling with the silver medal with Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, Dylan Cozens and Jack Quinn were on the ice practicing at training camp as members of the Buffalo Sabres.
For Cozens, it's his second training camp since being drafted seventh overall by the Sabres in the 2019 NHL Draft. Getting back to Buffalo for this year's training camp is something that the 19-year-old has eagerly been waiting for.
"It's definitely really exciting to be back," Cozens said following Friday afternoon's session at KeyBank Center. "It's been so long since I've been here. I've been so excited just to be back here, back on the ice in Buffalo. I feel good with where I'm at right now. Just coming off that tournament in game shape, so I just want to go out there and do my best and prove that I can play at this level."
Cozens performed as one of the premier players of the entire tournament, scoring eight goals and registering eight assists for 16 points in a seven-game span. The native of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory finished second overall in the tournament for scoring, while leading the way in the goals category. While his play was not enough to earn himself the tournament's Most Valuable Player honor, he was named as one of three forwards on the Media All-Star team, and was also voted as a top-three Best Player of Team Canada by the coaches.
In his two World Junior tournaments played with Canada, Cozens finished with 25 points (10+15) in just 14 games played. That impressive total is good enough for the fourth-most points scored in Canada's World Junior history. He also came away with hardware in both tournaments, winning the gold medal in 2020 and a silver in 2021.
When comparing his performance in this year's tournament compared to the 2020 tournament in the Czech Republic, Cozens feels his size and strength was the difference this time around to allow him to be one step ahead of most other players.
"I think I noticed it a lot out there at the World Juniors, my strength and being able to win puck battles, being able to take the puck to the net and fight guys off of the puck," Cozens said. "It's a big jump in where my game went from last year, and I think it's definitely going to be a huge part in helping make the jump to the NHL."
Many believed that heading into the 2020-21 season, Cozens had proven all he could prove while playing junior hockey in the Western Hockey League with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. He had the speed, skill set and hockey IQ to dominate offensively in the league, while possessing the physical traits to be a significant two-way presence down the middle of the ice.
After a stellar performance at the World Juniors in Edmonton, Cozens is feeling as confident as ever that his next step is making the NHL roster in Buffalo, bypassing another season in the WHL.
"I'm very confident in my game right now coming off the World Juniors," Cozens said. "I think it was big for me to get into game shape and be at the top of my game coming into camp here. I just want to go out there and play confident. It's my second camp now, so I know what to expect, and I want to earn myself a roster spot. I know the biggest thing for me is to play with confidence and make plays."
While Cozens does have one more year left of eligibility in the WHL, there are several questions still remaining about the status of their season with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The start of the season has been delayed, and a start time for the 2020-21 campaign is still to be determined.
If Cozens is unable to make the NHL roster to start the 2020-21 season and is not included as part of the six-man taxi squad, and if the WHL season is able to get back up and running, the Sabres have no choice but to send him back to Lethbridge. However, going back to the WHL is no where close to being on Cozens' mind at this point.
"I haven't really thought about that much. My mindset right now is to make Buffalo, and just take things day-by-day," Cozens said. "I'm not looking ahead to having to go back to the WHL. I just want to keep my mindset on making Buffalo, so I'm just going to focus on that right now. If it happens that the WHL does start and they do want me to go back there, that's what I'll do."
When skating with the afternoon group of players during Friday's practice, Cozens was skating on a line at center with C.J. Smith on his left wing and Brandon Biro on his right side. It is likely that those three will be skating together on Saturday night in the team's second Blue and Gold Scrimmage at training camp.
While Cozens has been widely looked at as being a center in the NHL going forward, he may have to start off on the wing in order to get completely acclimated to the professional game. A change like that to start his NHL career is something that he is completely open to.
"Throughout my junior career, I've played center and wing," Cozens said. "I kind of eased into the WHL as a winger, so I'm very comfortable on the wing. I'm just as comfortable on the wing as I am at center, so wherever they see me best fit is where I'll play and I'll play there happily."
As for his newfound relationship with Quinn, Cozens says he was able to get to know the 2020 first round pick (eighth overall) really well in their nearly two months spent together at the World Juniors in Edmonton.
"I've gotten to know Jack really well the last two months or so," Cozens said. "He's a really good guy, really fun to be around. His play is very skilled, he's got an unbelievable shot. We got to become really good friend, so I'm really excited to have him here with me. I think we'll become better friends as time goes on."
"We were together for a while with Hockey Canada for probably two months in Red Deer and then into Edmonton," said Quinn of Cozens after his first training camp practice in the NHL. "I got to become pretty good friends with him, and he's a great leader on the team. Definitely fortunate to be in Buffalo with him, and it's pretty exciting."
The 19-year-old Quinn took part in his first-career international competition with Canada at the 2021 World Juniors, where he played a much different role than his aforementioned teammate. In his seven games played in the tournament, Quinn scored a goal and registered four assists for five points in more of a depth role, as he moved around the lineup quite a bit.
Quinn felt that his own play could have been better in the seven games he suited up for, but not reaching the overall goal of winning the gold medal for a second-consecutive season was the bigger disappointment.
"I think it's obviously a disappointing result for us. We would've like to have been on the other end of the last game, but that's life. You've got to move on," Quinn said. "Personally, it was a great experience for me at the tournament. I probably would've liked to have [played] a little bit better, but like I said, it was a great experience."
Right after the tournament's conclusion, Quinn joined Cozens on the charter flight from Edmonton to Buffalo to join the Sabres for camp. After a quick two days in quarantine in Buffalo, Quinn said it was great get on the ice for the first time with the Sabres and get to see the rink.
Friday's practice saw Quinn skating on the right wing on a line with Brett Murray on the left wing and Steven Fogarty playing down the middle. While his role at the NHL level this upcoming season is unlikely, the young winger is just hoping to take the most out of this opportunity with the Sabres.
"Just to be the best I can, personally, and just show my stuff and learn from the NHLers. I think it's a great opportunity to learn from them, and there are some great players, so I'll try to take as much as I can," Quinn said.
However, similar to Cozens' situation in the WHL, the Ontario Hockey League's start to the 2020-21 season has been delayed with no start date currently on the horizon. In a normal circumstance, Quinn would be assigned back to the OHL if he does not make the NHL roster, where he plays for the Ottawa 67's. If there is no start to the OHL season in sight, then a stint in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans is possible.
Quinn did acknowledge that the times are uncertain with his future after training camp, but his focus will remain on the task at hand, which is to take the most out of training camp that he can.
"Obviously no one knows what's going to happen, including me, so I think for myself, I'm not looking too far ahead," Quinn said. "I'm just trying to be in the present in Buffalo now, so I'm trying to make the most of it every day."
Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger was very excited to get both of his young prospects back in town for training camp, so he could get his first look at them this season. Krueger is very aware of what each player had just accomplished this season at the World Juniors, and now he's looking forward to seeing how that transitions to camp.
However, Krueger knows that throwing them into the fire of camp, even coming into the situation in game shape, is not something that would benefit either of them. He wants to make sure they can get up to speed at their own pace, as the team gets their evaluation of the two before deciding their futures going forward.
"Most importantly for them is to be patient, and to integrate themselves at the level that they're coming at," Krueger said after Friday's first session. "Dylan, quite clearly, has an advantage having had camp with us last year, having been in contact with our player development personnel for a year-and-half. Dylan is way ahead when it comes to information. Jack was just recently drafted, and he hasn't been in our hands as [much], so we will be spending more time with him.
[Don] Granato has the lead on coaching the forwards and he will begin [working with them] today. Seth Appert, our new Rochester coach, will also be spending time with them, and I will look for moments of opportunity. We're trying to get them on the ice today with the 'Blue' group, we'd like to get them on the ice for the scrimmage tomorrow, and then we'll measure where they're at. There's no rush. We've got lots of depth right now up front, and we're excited to have them here. Let's measure where they're at before we make any other decisions."
At Friday's first session, Krueger and his staff altered the lines just a bit ahead of Saturday night's scrimmage at KeyBank Center.
Here is how they lined up:
Hall - Eichel - Thompson
Olofsson - Staal - Reinhart
Rieder - Eakin - Okposo
Skinner - Lazar - Sheahan
Ruotsalainen - Asplund - Mittelstadt
McCabe - Ristolainen
Dahlin - Montour
Miller - Jokiharju
Irwin - Borgen
Perhaps the most notable change from Friday was left winger Jeff Skinner moving from his spot on the second line with Eric Staal and Sam Reinhart down to the fourth line with Curtis Lazar and Riley Sheahan.
The move to put Skinner on the fourth line was not one due to performance, but it was one to look and get some offense spread throughout the lineup ahead of the scrimmage.
"Jeff had some success with Curtis Lazar last year, and Tage Thompson has had a very, very strong camp. I think you have to look at the combination of the decisions that happened there," Krueger said. "We believe it's going to be necessary for us early in the season to be able to play with four lines. We're going to need to be able to spread the ice-time out. We like every line to have a strength offensively and defensively. ... We liked the way the lines looked today, and we thought that everybody understands that we will be changing lines as we go through the process of finding out what everybody's about."
The team, once again, ramped up the pace of practice on Friday as the 2020-21 season quickly approaches. Drills had a bit more of a tempo to them, while the team also started to work a bit more on power play and penalty kill situations.
Here's a look at the power play units the team was working with on Friday:
Power Play 1:
Eichel - Hall - Olofsson
Power Play 2:
Miller - Thompson - Staal
Krueger is hoping that the schedule Saturday and how the team goes through the day will be a good precursor of what's to come for the upcoming season, that gets underway on Thursday, Jan. 14 against the Washington Capitals.
"What an important day that is for us psychologically," Krueger said. "I keep mentioning that there's 10 games still in the month of January. Never before has any NHL team gone into what all 31 of us are going to be doing, and that's playing without any exhibition games and playing for points right away. So tomorrow is important.
"We expect another level compared to the first scrimmage. We have the pregame skates, we're going to have the normal meetings in the morning, normal meetings at night. Both teams, coached by Steve Smith and [Don] Granato, will attack the game as if it was for points. ... There won't be much noise in the building, but there will be a few scattered people, management people, media and so on. That's a new world that we need to get used to for the near future, hopefully not for the long haul, but many things that will be very good to get ready for Thursday."
The Sabres' morning skates will start at 10:30 a.m. EST with the "Gold Group" skating first, followed by the "Blue Group" at 11:30 a.m. EST. Faceoff for the Blue and Gold Scrimmage is set for 7 p.m. EST, and is available to be streamed on the team's Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as at Sabres.com.