Is Cozens Ready?
Dylan Cozens has played ten NHL games for the Buffalo Sabres. This is significant because, as the rule states, once a player under 25 years old plays over nine games in a season, his entry level contract (ELC) kicks in. He must sign it if he hasn't done so already. Cozens signed his immediately following his draft selection. It kicked in on Saturday and Buffalo has him locked up for the next three years at a fixed salary $925,000, the ELC maximum. Even with built in incentives, this looks to be a bargain.
During last year's preseason, I'm talking about fall of 2019, Cozens' draft year, there were many who argued that he played well enough to make the team. However, sending him back down to juniors that year might have worked to his benefit as it resulted in him being available for the 2021 World Junior Tournament where he made a big splash.
Not only was that good for his confidence but it was also good for his conditioning. Cozens came into this season in better shape than most other NHL players and it showed. Not only does he often outskate opponents but he goes to work in the dirty areas with no hesitation and gets physical. He took a big hit from Washington's Zdana Chara that floored him but he bounced right back up and kept going. Plus, he's also defensively responsible.
As with many rookies who are drafted as a center, Cozens has been inserted into the lineup as a winger so as to give him a taste of the NHL without the burden of the many responsibilities that a center must carry. Buffalo acclimated Sam Reinhart in the same fashion, but Sam never made the transition back to center.
Buffalo is counting on Cozens to be able to make that transition. Their current second line center, even though coach Ralph Krueger does not like numbering the lines, is 36 year old Eric Staal. Staal has had an excellent career but he only has a one year deal with the Sabres and his plans for next season are undetermined.
It's more than likely that as this season closes, at a point where Cozens has somewhere around 35-40 games under his belt, Buffalo will start putting him in the center slot to prepare him for his anticipated role and to further his development. It's part of the process. Trust the process. Of course, Cozens could see center action sooner if one of the other middlemen go down but let's hope that's not how it unfolds.
Here's the question. Why wait? Cozens is a skilled energy player with a solid two-way game. Once he is put back into his natural role, I believe he's going to draw comparisons to a young Michel Bergeron and perhaps he and Eichel will learn from each other. So coach, let's go ahead and speed up the prōcess and enhance the ōffense.
There are two issues with doing this. How do the Sabres reconstruct the lines? Is Cozens ready?
I'll address the latter question first because it's the easy one. If Cozens truly is not ready, then this shouldn't be done. My opinion though, in regards to his readiness, in a word, is yes. A big fat yes. Cozens is ready. He's more ready than Sam was. He's more ready than Dahlin was. I'd say he's just as ready as Jack was. The energy he'll bring as the line lead will be infectious, much like that of Curtis Lazar who, incidentally, is the man I'd displace with Cozens.
Which brings us to the other issue, the lineup. Where would Lazar go? I'd put him to the right of Cozens. Lazar has played RW before, so it will not be unnatural for him. On the left of that line, let's see what Taylor Hall can do. That's more than likely how it will look when the Sabres move forward in the process later on. Instead of waiting til there are only 15-20 games left, why not give it a go right now. Here's how it would look.
Sheehan and Okposo can be flip-flopped as deemed necessary but I'm sure you get the idea here. The amount of grit on the Cozens line, with three skilled players who have no fear of banging it up in the corners would be a great compliment to the Eichel line. With the way Cozens buzzes around the ice as a winger, the prospect of what he might do in the middle gives me chills.
For Eric Staal, he has lost a step due to age. He's certainly not an end-to-end rush player anymore. Can't imagine him sprinting up the ice and then sprinting back to take a defensive posture which is what Ralph's system calls for. More likely he'd be "sprinting" to the bench.
However, as it is oft noted, speed and quickness are two different things. Staal is still a skilled center, positionally excellent and reacts quickly with the puck. He's been around so long that his muscle memory, which includes how he thinks the game, gives him an edge throughout. A center like that may be what Skinner needs to help him to get off the schneid.
This suggested lineup is one that Buffalo should ice sooner rather than later. Cozens is ready. Time to take the next step and get a glimpse of the future. Your comments below are welcome. Perhaps you have a better solution.
The Sabres, who remained in New Jersey after back to back showdowns with the Devils, are on the Island tonight for their third match this season against the conference finalist New York Islanders. Puck drops at 7:00 p.m.