BUFFALO – Sabres center Dylan Cozens scored 31 goals despite missing about three or four opportunities a game to generate more chances, coach Don Granato said.
So consider the potential that Cozens, 22, still possesses coming off a breakout season. Granato told him last month there’s a whole lot more he can do.
“He told me that he doesn’t think I’m anywhere close to the player I can be,” Cozens said April 16 as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings in KeyBank Center after missing the playoffs by one win. “He said it’s surprising I scored 30 goals the way I did because he thinks I have so much more to my game.”
Cozens showcased massive growth in his third NHL season, shattering his career-high offensive totals. He scored 18 more goals than last year and his point total jumped from 38 to 68.
“I always knew I had that potential in me,” Cozens said.
His emergence earned him a seven-year, $49.7 million contract extension in February.
“You put things in front of him and he internalizes it, and he’s still young,” Granato said. “He has incredible attributes of speed and quickness that he’s still not using quite efficiently as he can and will.”
So if the tenacious Cozens becomes more efficient and keeps rapidly developing, a 40-goal season could be on the horizon.
Cozens, Granato said, has learned to play with more poise and harness what he called “this incredible energy and this motor that’s going.”
“He has (been) better targeting his skill set and power and explosiveness and when to jump into those pockets,” he said.
But a whole lot more went into the Yukon native entrenching himself as one of the Sabres’ cornerstones and their No. 2 center behind Tage Thompson.
Earlier in his career, Cozens often put too much pressure on himself – “I’ve been really hard on myself in the past years,” he said – and had trouble letting go of poor performances. This season, he said he “learned how to reset quick.”
“You have a bad game or off game, just how to get ready for the next one, put it behind me,” said Cozens, the seventh overall pick in 2019. “Especially in the pressure of a contract year, I think I was able to just kind of go out there and play and have fun and not focus on that as much.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Cozens played looser and focused on utilizing his heavy shot more frequently, and he pumped 211 shots on a goal, up from 160 last season. His shooting percentage, meanwhile rose to 14.7 percent, up from 8.1 percent.
“I scored goals I didn’t expect to score,” he said. “I put more pucks on net this year and they just found their way in. … I got the more shooting mentality this year.”
Cozens was one of about seven players who enjoyed career seasons. The Sabres scored a whopping 296 goals, the NHL’s third-highest total and their most since 2006-07, the last time they had four 30-goal scorers.
Their offense improved so much – they scored 67 more goals than last season – that Cozens ranked fourth on the Sabres in goals and fifth in points.
“Donny’s a huge part of that,” Cozens said of so many players reaching higher levels. “He wants everyone to reach their ceiling and be the best player they can be. He’s been so good for all of us in growing our games and just being able to go out there and play with confidence. We go out there and we play free. We’re not scared to make mistakes, and I think that’s what allows us to just get better and improve.”
Cozens has quickly reached a stage in his career where he makes his linemates better. For most of the season, he pivoted rookies JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn.
While Cozens is just 11 months older than Peterka and eight months older than Quinn, he served as a mentor of sorts for the neophytes. Cozens already has 201 games of NHL experience.
“I know what they were going through their rookie year, I had my slumps,” he said. “So it is tough. You hit a wall sometimes and you’re just trying to work through it. I’m the same age as Jack and a year older than JJ, but I’ve had a little bit more experience.”
Quinn believes playing with Cozens “probably boosted our game and helped us take some steps.”
“He’s such a good player already at a young age,” he said. “I think the chemistry we had as a line, we’re able to kind of score some goals and feel like we can be good players in the league.”