BUFFALO – Right away, Seth Appert noticed a difference in Tyson Kozak. The Sabres center prospect looks more confident and assertive this season.
“He’s not a loud person,” said Appert, Kozak’s coach with the Rochester Americans. “He lets his action speak more than his words. But I hear him on the ice more right now.”
If Kozak’s recent exploits offer any indication, Appert will also be seeing more of him on the ice. He has quickly developed into a trusted asset.
Fresh off a rookie season in which he enjoyed regular duty in the AHL, Kozak, 20, has been a standout again in the Prospects Challenge, recording one goal and two points in two games.
The Sabres close the rookie tournament this afternoon against the Pittsburgh Penguins at LECOM Harborcenter.
A year ago, Kozak, a seventh-round pick in 2021, 193rd overall, was a bit of an unknown. He signed his entry-level contract in mid-August, so he spent most of the summer thinking he might be playing another season of junior with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.
“That summer was a long summer just waiting to see what was going to happen, stuff like that,” Kozak said. “I was very anxious.”
Then he stole the spotlight at the 2022 Prospects Challenge, showcasing a gritty two-way game that has helped him adapt to pro hockey. By the spring, Appert leaned on him heavily throughout the Amerks’ 14-game run in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The 5-foot-11, 173-pound Kozak has come a long way fast. Now, he understands he belongs. It seems like a matter of when, not if, he will earn his first recall to Buffalo.
He might fit in nicely pivoting the third or fourth line and killing penalties.
“He had a really good year in the American Hockey League,” Appert said. “He got better and better as the season went on. He played huge, valuable minutes for us in a playoff run. One of our most trusted defensive players and penalty killers and physical presences.
“And now the shoulder’s a little higher because he’s earned that. He knows what he did, and now he just wants to build upon it.”
Kozak, one of the Sabres’ alternate captains for the Prospects Challenge, has started building on last season by creating offense centering Russian wingers Aleksandr Kisakov and Viktor Neuchev.
In Friday’s 6-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, he scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period, displaying his soft hands after defenseman Nikita Novikov fed him in the right circle. In Saturday’s 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils, his slick backhand pass from behind the neck set up Neuchev’s early score. He adroitly fed Kisakov a pass later in the game, generating a prime scoring chance.
Kozak’s offense improved in the playoffs last season, when he scored two goals and five points. He compiled five goals and 10 points in 55 regular-season outings.
“We’ve seen it in glimpses,” Appert said of Kozak’s offense. “… We’ve always believed in his offensive game; we just knew that was going to be a secondary asset of his. It’s not going to be the thing that drives his game or drives him to the NHL.
“He’s a very capable and skilled hockey player, and good players like playing with him because, No. 1, he wins puck battles and he gets you on offense. And then No. 2, he’s skilled enough he makes good plays with skilled players.”
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) September 16, 2023
We discuss Week 1, today’s Raiders game, the Prospects Challenge and more in our second episode:https://t.co/0VZhrdfaRv
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) September 17, 2023