VANCOUVER – Growing up in Whitehorse, Yukon, a city of about 25,000 in the northwestern Canadian territory, new Buffalo Sabres prospect Dylan Cozens said making the NHL seemed impossible.
“It always felt like a far-fetched dream and not really achievable, but I believed it and I believed in myself that I can make this happen one day,” an excited Cozens, 18, said shortly after the Sabres selected him seventh overall Friday at the NHL Draft. “Now that it’s finally here it’s a crazy feeling.”
Cozens, a high-scoring center with the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, became the highest-drafted player ever out of the Yukon.
Of course, Cozens acknowledged pressure accompanied having an entire territory behind you. Only three NHL players have ever hailed from the Yukon.
“There are just so many people that are talking to me about it and watching me, so many people that want to see me succeed,” said Cozens, who left home for British Columbia when he was 14. “I don’t want to let them down. Now that it’s here and the draft’s happened I’m so excited.”
Cozens had a feeling the Sabres, who need a pivot, might grab him if he lasted. He said he had dinner with the higher-ups at the NHL Scouting Combine earlier this month in Buffalo and “had a good vibe.”
“I felt like they liked me as a player and I was one of the guys on their radar,” Cozens said. “It turns out I was. I’m so excited about it.”
No one had a handle on how the first round might transpire after Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko went off the board first and second.
“In this type of draft there are so many different places I could go,” Cozens said. “I wasn’t too surprised. There were lots of other really good players. It could have gone so many different ways.”
As the picks went by, a nervous Cozens sat in the stands with his family. Meanwhile, general manager Jason Botterill said the Sabres “were locked in” on Cozens.
“Lots of nerves but then lots of excitement, too,” Cozens said. “Sitting there waiting for your name to be called and every pick takes three minutes, but it feels like an hour. When you finally hear your name called it’s so much emotion. … Now that it’s here it’s unbelievable.”
The 6-foot-3, 183-pound Cozens could be an NHL-ready prospect. He compiled 34 goals and 84 points in 68 games with Lethbridge last season.
“If I’m privileged enough to and they want me to play I believe I’ll be ready for it, but if not I’ll go back to Lethbridge and I’ll lead that team there,” Cozens said.
Cozens’ versatility helped make him attractive to the Sabres. Botterill likes that he can play center and the wing. Cozens is open to playing either position.
“I see myself as a true centerman, but I also see myself as a true winger,” he said.
Botterill, who selected defenseman Ryan Johnson with the 31st pick, also values Cozens’ size, speed and the drive he possesses.
“(He has a) motivating factor in his work ethic and a knowledge of what he has to work on in his game,” Botterill said. “That really came across in the meetings. He was driven to become a National Hockey League player.”
Cozens is the first player from the junior Canadian Hockey League Botterill selected in his three drafts as GM.
Sabres fans will get their first glimpse of Cozens in Blue and Gold next week at the team’s development camp in Harborcenter.
Cozens can’t wait to step on the ice in Buffalo.
“It seemed like a real hockey city and that the fans get behind them a lot,” Cozens said. “I loved my time there just walking around the city and down by the water there. I’m so excited to go there for development camp.”
When Cozens returns home, he expects a wild time.
“It’s going to get crazy when I go back,” he said. “I’m happy to be that guy that kind of paves a path for hockey in the Yukon.”
Botterill said Cozens’ path is “very unique.”
“I couldn’t imagine, because sometimes people think growing up in Winnipeg is way out there, but still nothing compared to the Yukon,” Botterill said.
He added: “In his mind, it hasn’t been difficult. It’s just what you have to do to accomplish your dreams.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, just won a championship with the junior United States Hockey League’s Sioux Falls Stampede.
“I’m a two-way defenseman,” Johnson said. “I can use my skating pretty well to defend and offensively as well. I also think I have pretty good puck sense and hockey skills.
The 6-foot, 170-pound Johnson, 17, compiled six goals and 25 points in 54 games last season.
His father, former forward Craig Johnson, played NHL games.
Ryan Johnson, who grew up in California, will play college hockey at Minnesota next season.