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Dylan Cozens’ breakout season for Sabres fueled by zone entries


Buddy
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A sight that has become more common for the Buffalo Sabres and increasingly scary for opponents is that of 21-year-old Dylan Cozens carrying the puck into the offensive zone with a head of steam.

It happened again on Saturday afternoon during Buffalo’s 6-3 win over Anaheim. Cozens collected a neutral zone pass at the blue line. Within a few strides, he had separated from the backcheck and found himself skating toward Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg. He picked his head up to look over at Tyson Jost skating down the other wing. That was just enough to freeze Silfverberg, and Cozens deked him to the ice before lifting a shot right underneath the crossbar.

Cozens, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, is in the middle of a breakout season. He’s already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points. And he is only 48 games into his third NHL season.

He’s establishing himself as a piece of the Sabres’ growing leadership core due to his competitiveness. Now the 6-foot-3 forward is showing all of the talent that made him a top-10 pick in the NHL Draft. His shooting percentage is at a career-high, but the foundation of his offensive outburst is his ability to be a play-driver through zone entries.

As of Jan. 1, Cozens was leading the Sabres in zone entries by a large margin. Of those, 66 percent of them were carry-ins, according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking at AllThreeZones.com.

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Courtesy: Corey Sznajder / AllThreeZones.com

That Cozens is doing this at 21 years old with a pair of 21-year-old linemates makes it even more impressive. Cozens said having options like Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka and making the defense respect those options helps open everything up for him. As he’s gotten more experience, he notices that he’s increasingly able to stay calm with the puck on his stick.

“Sometimes in those first couple of years I would get the puck and wanted to get to my high speed as quick as I can,” Cozens said. “Now I’ve learned to wait for guys to catch up to me so we can attack as a group and then just try to show the d-man I’m going slow and then go fast at it.”

Sabres defenseman Mattias Samuelsson routinely matches up against opponents’ top lines in games, and he said the most difficult zone entries to defend are those on which the puck carrier is able to buy extra time by protecting the puck or changing speeds to keep the defenseman off balance. He’s had to deal with Cozens in practice on a regular basis and sees all of the qualities of the top zone entry players.

“His speed is the first thing,” Samuelsson said. “He can challenge anybody. When he uses his speed but then slows down, it forces the d-men to back up and then you have to launch forward and it gets the d out of rhythm when he’s changing his speed. He’s a hell of a playmaker. I think it’s underrated how well he can protect pucks with his body. If he’s on the outside and not in the middle and gets the puck, he can protect it. Going against it in practice every day it’s pretty annoying.”

Physical skills are one thing, and Cozens has plenty. His speed, particularly his ability to get to top gear quickly, stands out. He has the passing and shooting skills to keep defensemen guessing, too. But Don Granato’s first thought when thinking about players who are dangerous when entering the zone is intelligence. A player needs to be able to read where the pressure is coming from both with the defensemen and backcheckers. He also needs to be able to read what options he has joining him on the rush.

Granato views this as a significant area of learning for players when they are entering the NHL. Most players who enter the league have long been more talented than their peers. That makes it a lot easier to dominate as a puck carrier.

“When you get to the NHL, there’s not a discrepancy in skill,” Granato said. “It’s down to like two or three percent. You have to substitute that with game knowledge or situational awareness and lots of other details beyond that. That’s the challenge as players enter the league.”

Cozens has begun to master that. Owen Power said the toughest thing about defending Cozens is that his ability to change speeds makes it difficult to gauge how fast he’s going at any particular moment. Power has noticed that zone entries are one of the most challenging aspects about transitioning from the college game to the NHL. In college, a lot of teams are content to play dump and chase. In the NHL, the best teams have players who are trying to create on the rush.

“I think the biggest thing for me is guys who don’t skate in straight lines,” Power said. “When you skate straight all the time, it’s pretty easy to angle you off. If you weave in and out it’s a lot tougher. You look at a lot of the best guys, they do that and they change speeds a lot.”

The numbers also show Cozens is just scratching the surface in terms of creating scoring chances off of those zone entries.

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Courtesy: Corey Sznajder / AllThreeZones.com

It’s no secret that the Sabres are a young, fast team that wants to create scoring chances off the rush. In that sense, Cozens said zone entries start with how quickly the team is able to transition from defense to offense. The quicker they can flip the play, the less time the opponent has to read what they’re going to do. That’s what has helped them work their way into a tie for the league lead in goals per game. And it’s what is making Cozens a soon-to-be highly-paid star.

“Confidence is a big thing, the ability to trust your speed and playmaking ability to make plays,” Cozens said. “The more confident I get, the more I’ll create off the rush and get those high-danger chances.”

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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