Had Finland edged out the United States to make the final of the World Junior Championship earlier this month, we'd likely be talking about Dylan Cozens' recent MVP effort.
Instead, he fell short of the title thanks to Trevor Zegras and didn't get to bring home a gold medal, either, despite an incredible 16-point run that will be remembered as an all-time great performance for Team Canada.
But that's in the past, and Cozens is in the big leagues now. His junior career is over. And that should get Sabres fans absolutely pumped about the future, especially after watching his debut on Thursday. Cozens assisted on Tobias Rieder's goal in the second period to make the most of his 12:09 of ice time while looking noticeably like one of the best players on any given shift for the Sabres in a 6-4 loss to the Washington Capitals.
"Dylan played a very good first game, very calm," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "He never looked overwhelmed. I saw even a situation in the third period, he got hit by (defenseman Zdeno) Chara, no problem, he bounced right back at it."
Yeah, imagine having to match up against a 6-foot-9 future Hockey Hall of Famer in your first game after playing against your teenage peers for a couple of weeks. But Cozens handled the challenge and simply didn't look out of a place for a 19-year-old.
"I put in a lot of work this offseason to gain weight, get stronger so I can battle with guys at this level," Cozens said. "I think I did pretty good out there. Obviously, guys are bigger, stronger, but I think I held my own in battles."
Cozens' situation would have been a challenge in a normal season. Had he made the Sabres out of camp, he likely wouldn't have been given the opportunity to represent Canada internationally and build an even stronger resume. But had he not made the team, he would have been too young for the AHL's Rochester Americans and would have been sent back to the WHL, where he had 222 points over 179 games. There simply wasn't much left for him to prove at the junior level.
With nowhere else to go, Cozens joined Canada and was one of the tournament's most outstanding players, and the clear No. 1 star for his country after the loss of Kirby Dach following a pre-tournament game. That ability to play in high-octane games while the rest of his Sabres teammates were preparing for training camp definitely helped him gain some confidence ahead of a rookie season that will see him compete against the likes of Alexis Lafreniere, Tim Stützle and Kirill Kaprizov for the Calder Trophy in one of the most stacked battles we've ever seen.
Of course, we're talking about just one game here, but Cozens was ranked No. 7 in our annual Future Watch issue last year for a reason.
“The competitiveness, mixed with his size and speed, make him really special,” said Andre Tourigny, Cozens' coach at the world juniors. “When you see a big boy like that who can move, who is so driven and plays with that pace...
"We could say that about a lot of players: They’re big, fast and skilled. But that doesn’t mean they play with pace. It doesn’t mean they play with that speed and desire to make plays. Dylan has that, though."
It's only a matter of time until Cozens moves from the third line and gets a shot to play on the wing of either Jack Eichel or Eric Staal. Cozens can play down the middle, too, but his versatility from both the wing and center positions makes him easy to move around the lineup. It's a good place to start him, though, given his status as a rookie, so easing him in is the right call.
But Cozens isn't going to let that happen for long. Once he's comfortable, Cozens projects to be a top-six forward that can potentially play on the top line with Eichel and Taylor Hall later on. In Cozens, think Sam Reinhart, but faster and smarter away from the puck, and you've got a guy in Cozens that can provide a ton of value – and I believe at a much bigger scale, too.
You've got something here, Sabres fans.