The stylistic focus at the NHL Draft tends to mirror the style of play that is leading to success at that particular time— when the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings were winning Stanley Cups, it was the “power forward” mold that NHL teams were searching for at the draft; now that the league has shifted to a faster paced, more skilled style of game, the focus at the draft has shifted in that direction.
As we know, the vast majority of prospects don’t make an immediate impact. All but the exceptional need at least one additional year of development before they’re ready for NHL duty— and it isn’t even close to uncommon for prospects to require two, three, or even four+ years of time in junior, the American Hockey League, or overseas before finally becoming polished enough for an everyday role in the NHL.
The style of play in the league has rotated faster than some of these prospects have developed. Some of them have been left behind, players like Griffin Reinhart– high draft picks who can never establish themselves under the new constraints of the NHL style — while others have been forced to make significant adjustments to their game.
This year’s draft features a very intriguing player that merges these two styles of play — the old-school physically dominant “power forward” vein, and the modern quick, highly skilled attacker than can exploit open space in the offensive zone and make a mess out of the big, lumbering defencemen that have lingered within the league, managing to hang on long enough based on reputation and perceived defensive ability to be ruthlessly exploited by today’s forwards with skill that outweighs their own several times over.
That player is Dylan Cozens, a 6’3” right-shooting attacker that is destroying the Western Hockey League through a quick, upbeat style that merges speed, intelligence, and tremendous skill on the puck.
Cozens possesses a dominant all-around offensive game. One of the best playmakers in the WHL, Cozens places 12th in the WHL in 5v5 Primary Assists Per Estimated 60 Minutes, and 15th in 5v5 Primary Assists Per Game. He leads all WHL first-time NHL draft-eligibles in both categories.
His offensive talent doesn’t stop there. Cozens is also one of the best scorers in the Western Hockey League, averaging over 0.4 5v5 goals per game.
Overall, Cozens is one of the more dangerous 5v5 threats in the WHL as a 17 year old (Cozens turns 18 in early February). He’s 8th in the WHL in 5v5 primary points per game and 6th in total 5v5 points per game. On the man advantage, he hasn’t been quite as strong, which drags down his all-situations numbers a bit, but his powerplay production is still quite good, and assuredly nothing to worry about.
Let’s dive into the specific elements of Cozens’ game that allow him to achieve this level of excellence.
First of all, he’s an exceptional skater. Recently, TSN Director Of Scouting called him the best skater in the entire draft. I don’t agree with that — Jack Hughes is indisputably in that spot for me — but it communicates just how mobile he is.
This is an outstanding example of his speed. The defender has no chance.
Cozens makes the most out of this ability. He’s an enormous dilemma in one-on-one situations: As the defender, do you play him tight, hoping to strip him of the puck before he can accelerate but setting yourself up for an embarrassing situation if you fail to do that, or do you give him space, not allowing him to blow past you, but giving him plenty of time to put his other skills to use?
It’s also a major tool in transition, and is a big piece of Cozens transitional profile. The Canadian is very strong in transition. He does a great job of getting the puck out of his own zone without relinquishing possession, and can carry the puck into the offensive zone seemingly at will. When he does dump the puck in, he’s an extremely effective forechecker, limiting options and getting in on the puck astoundingly quickly. He’s responsible for a lot of panicked defencemen, and honestly, it’s hard to blame the players for momentary lapses in decision-making when they look up to see a 6’3″, 185 pound beast flying towards them.
In the offensive zone, he’s similarly effective. Cozens has a diverse playmaking profile– he’s capable of creating for his teammates in a multitude of ways.
He has incredible vision and great passing ability, but often, Cozens’ assists don’t even come as the result of a pass. Cozens is fantastic at creating rebound opportunities with his shot. He frequently generates powerful, accurate shots from dangerous areas, forcing goaltenders to react and move to the puck. The quality of these shots doesn’t allow the goaltender to make an attempt to control the rebound– he’s too busy trying to even make the save. When the goalie does manage to stop the puck, the rebound often ends up directly in front of the net for a high percentage second opportunity.
Cozens has an excellent eye for cross-ice seams, and frequently looks to exploit these openings in the opponent’s defence. He’s already able to get his head up and find an open teammate in a very quick manner, and his processing will only improve as he develops and begins to trust his instincts even further. I wouldn’t say he’s at the “doesn’t even have to look up” level, but he’s very quick to assess his options once he gets his eyes up.
This pass isn’t in the offensive zone, but it’s a fantastic example of his vision and sense for open teammates. He’s able to collect the puck, quickly scan the ice, and make an excellent breakout pass. It shows how quickly Cozens is able to process the play and find a teammate.
Here’s another example, but in the offensive zone this time. Cozens loops back, picks up his eyes, and finds Canadian teammate Evan Bouchard with an excellent cross-ice pass.
There’s a lot of positives in this area, but plenty of room for growth exists in this element of Cozens’ game. The forward does an excellent job of exploiting lanes and finding open teammates, but he doesn’t possess the hallmark of a great playmaker: the ability to create passing lanes. He takes what he is given, but doesn’t create more. If Cozens wants to become a high-end playmaker, this is a tool he will need to add to his repertoire.
Cozens’ game is more inclined to scoring than it is playmaking. The attacker can threaten from all over the offensive zone, with exceptional finishing talent in tight working in tandem with an excellent shot that is dangerous even from lower percentage areas. He’s next to unstoppable driving the net; if he has any semblance of a lane to the crease, Cozens will take it, and any attempt to prevent him from achieving that is almost guaranteed to end in failure.
He’s so good at gaining a step on a defender, allowing him to beat them wide, just like so:
And once Cozens begins to pull away, all I can say is “good luck”.
Once he has a step, it’s almost impossible to knock the puck off his stick. He’s so good at protecting the puck, using his body and reach to their fullest extent. It’s virtually impossible to poke the puck off his stick because he makes good use of his reach to carry the puck as far away from the defender as possible, and the list of players that can physically overpower Cozens is a short one. Considering that Cozens is still just 185 lbs (per eliteprospects.com) and has a lot of room to add strength as he progresses towards the NHL, I think that’s an aspect of his game that will carry over to the professional ranks.
Without the puck, Cozens continues to go to the dangerous areas.
Cozens loves to fight his way to the crease, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a significant threat from further out. Armed with a laser of a shot, Cozens loves to operate in the vicinity of the faceoff dot, where he can look for a cross-ice pass option or unleash a heavy shot on the net. This is where he works on the man advantage, and he has found great success in that role.
Here’s an example.
Cozens always picks his spot before he shoots the puck. He gets his head up, looks for open net, and shoots for that spot. This is evident just by looking at some of his goals over the last two seasons: he frequently beats the goalie underneath the shoulder, a common hole in a goalie’s stance, and typically has an eye for the five-hole as well.
This is a fantastic look at what I’m talking about. Cozens is able to receive the puck, take a quick look at the net, and pick his spot just above the goaltender’s pad. It’s a near-perfect shot, and the goaltender can’t react in time to do anything more than redirect the puck as it ends up in the back of the net anyway.
His shot is already strong enough to beat NHL goalies; just imagine how much of a weapon it will be as Cozens develops further. Combine that with his ability to find open pockets in the offensive zone and there’s a strong possibility that Cozens could be one of the premier scoring pivots in the NHL one day.
Forget the goals: Cozens could be one of the premier forwards in the NHL one day, period. He’s a well-rounded centre that can attack in so many ways. An absolute nightmare to defend, Dylan Cozens is a top line anchor in the making. He plays with incredible pace, he’s a very versatile attacker, and although there’s still some refinement to occur, particularly with some of his technical skills (his passing ability, for example, could use a bit of work), it shouldn’t be long before the Lethbridge Hurricanes forward is an impact NHL player.