Buffalo Sabres: Staal trade paves the way for Dylan Cozens to accelerate his development

Dylan Cozens #24 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Dylan Cozens #24 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Dylan Cozens could now be elevated to a much-bigger role for the Buffalo Sabres.

As we approach the NHL Trade Deadline on April 12, the Buffalo Sabres will be sellers due to the fact that they are currently on a horrific and embarrassing 17-game winless streak and will miss the postseason for a 10th consecutive year, and the fire sale has started early which could be good news for Dylan Cozens.

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It was announced on Friday that the Sabres had traded veteran center Eric Staal to the Montreal Canadiens for a third-round and a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, while also retaining $1.625 million of the forward’s $3,250,000 cap hit.

While many viewed the addition of Staal back in the offseason as a good move for Buffalo, it never really worked out for either party with the 36-year-old a -20 in 32 games while recording just 10 points (3 G, 7 A), so a parting of the ways by the Trade Deadline felt like a foregone conclusion.

And, as the old saying goes, when one door closes another one opens and that should now be the case for rookie forward Dylan Cozens, who was selected No. 7 overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres and has shown flashes of his high potential at points during the 2020-21 NHL season so far.

Dylan Cozens (24)
Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens (24). Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports /

Staal trade opens the door for Dylan Cozens to seize bigger role with Buffalo Sabres

As is the case with any prospect taken high in the First Round of the NHL Draft, there were high expectations for Dylan Cozens and many viewed him as a player with the potential to form a deadly one-two punch down the middle for the Sabres behind franchise cornerstone and Captain Jack Eichel.

That may be in doubt now mainly because Eichel’s future with the Sabres is very much up in the air with the constant trade speculation refusing to go away, but what isn’t in doubt is the fact that Cozens seems to have the makeup to morph into a reliable two-way top six pivot in the National Hockey League.

After really exploding on to the scene during the winter with a breakout performance for Team Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Championship in Edmonton, finishing second in the entire tournament in points with 16 points (8 G, 8 A) in seven games, before being rewarded with a spot on Buffalo’s Opening Night Roster.

Cozens gave Sabres fans a tantalizing glimpse of what they could come to expect from the seventh overall pick in 2019 with the 20-year-old tallying an assist on his NHL debut, and he currently has six points (4 G, 2 A) in 24 games while averaging 14:02 of total ice time per night.

Dylan Cozens (24)
Dylan Cozens #24 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images) /

Of course, it hasn’t been a perfect or smooth rookie year thus far with Cozens having struggled with a couple of injuries while he has also been played out on the wing, but his -6 rating is more of an indictment on how bad the situation is in Buffalo rather than on his individual play.

But, with Eric Staal now out of the building coupled with Jack Eichel still being out with an upper-body injury, there is a real opportunity for Dylan Cozens to build on some of his highlights and really showcase himself as a piece the Buffalo Sabres can build around.

Largely playing on a top line between Taylor Hall and Sam Reinhart since Eichel went down, Cozens has just one point in his last five games but he’s displayed other impressive attributes to his game, including a real maturity to his play and a high-level hockey IQ, particularly in the defensive zone.

Standing at 6-foot-3 and 188 pounds, Cozens could be a real formidable two-way center who can play an imposing 200-foot game once he fills out a bit, and he will be tasked with playing like a No. 1 pivot now that Staal is also off the roster.

With the depth behind him thin, the onus will be on Cozens to really seize this opportunity and run with it, and he’s likely to be better heading into this week given that he’s had a few games to get back into the swing of things after being out with an upper-body injury.

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Having already shown that he’s capable of playing an advanced game for someone his age, particularly in his own zone, Dylan Cozens will now be exposed to top-line minutes and matchups against some of the best players in the NHL, and he’ll get the opportunity to really learn his craft and hone his skills while spotlighting as the team’s No. 1 center and that should really help to accelerate his development, which is only good news for the Buffalo Sabres who will need as much elite talent as possible to build around heading into the offseason.