BUFFALO – A couple of weeks ago, Sabres captain Kyle Okposo approached center Dylan Cozens and asked him if he ever says “good job” to himself.
Having spent four seasons as teammates, Okposo, 35, knows how much pressure Cozens, 22, puts on himself. His struggles often consume him.
When Cozens replied, “I don’t think so,” Okposo told him if he makes a nice play, to acknowledge it to himself. Okposo wanted him to understand he should focus on the positives in his game instead of always dwelling on the negatives.
His words resonated with Cozens.
“I have high expectations for myself, high standards,” Cozens said following Tuesday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “When I’m not meeting them, I’m not happy with myself. I think that’s something I could be better at is … sometimes just acknowledging positive things about my game.”
Right now, there are plenty of positives in Cozens’ game. While he registered a career-worst minus-4 rating in Sunday’s 5-1 road loss to the Ottawa Senators, he has been arguably the Sabres’ best forward over the past month.
Overall this season, he has registered just six goals and 20 points in 36 games, putting him on a 13-goal and 44-point pace over a full campaign.
But Cozens has shaken off a poor start and consistently showcased the aggressive style that helped him enjoy a 31-goal, 68-point breakout season in 2022-23.
So far, it hasn’t translated much to the score sheet. In 15 games since Dec. 1, he has recorded two goals and seven points. He has, however, compiled a team-high 53 five-on-five scoring chances during that stretch, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Cozens said he has “started to kind of find my game again.”
“I’m playing with a little more confidence now, shooting pucks, getting to the net,” said Cozens, who has pumped six shots on goal in each of the last two games. “That’s something I think I missed a lot of the season. I’m still not where I want to be, though. I know I still got a lot more to give.
“There comes a point in time I got to start putting pucks in the back of the net, and I haven’t been doing that much this year. So I know I got a lot more, and I’m going to bring it the second half of the season.”
Sabres coach Don Granato said Cozens has “simplified his game.”
“He’s played a much more direct game, and now he’s feeling, he’s reading the plays better, as opposed to forcing a play sometimes,” he said.
Early in the year, Cozens felt the pressure that accompanied his new seven-year, $49.7 million contract.
“You want to show that you’re worth that,” he said. “You don’t want to let anyone down. I think it starts weighing on you a bit, for sure, when you’re not producing the way you should be.”
After registering three goals and seven points in the first eight games, Cozens went into a long slump, mustering just one goal in his next 20 outings.
“This is a different territory for him,” Granato said. “… He even felt the pressure he was letting people down, letting himself down, not playing to a level he thought that he should be, and he was pretty hard on himself.”
On Nov. 3, Cozens broke his nose in an ill-advised fight with the Philadelphia Flyers’ Garnet Hathaway. While he missed only two games, he returned wearing a full face shield that hampered his vision.
His slump dragged on.
“I struggled through that time after I broke my nose there, kind of just decided, you know what, I got to be better,” Cozens said. “I got to step up. I need to need to be better for the team, and I just kind of said if I’m not feeling it, I’m just going to put my head down and work. I’ll finish checks, get behind them and just work.”
Cozens, who has recently been centering wingers JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn, his linemates much of last season, believes if he can keep generating scoring chances, he’ll regain his regular form.
“I feel like I’ve been getting to the net, getting pucks on net,” he said. “I think it’ll all start coming back together and I’ll start playing the way I know I should be playing and know I can play.”