NHL Draft: Dylan Cozens eager to make Yukon hockey history

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VANCOUVER — Dylan Cozens’ trip to Vancouver for the 2019 NHL Draft wasn’t a long one from his home in Whitehorse, Yukon a city in northwestern Canada. A quick two-hour flight brought him to where he will take the next step in hockey career.

His journey to get to this stage, and so close to the NHL, was a longer one.

Coming from Whitehorse, the only city in the Yukon, which has a population of about 25,000, there wasn’t a large youth hockey program in the area. Cozens played a lot against older competition and at age 12, he began playing in a league against grown men. It was during that time his career took a different turn.

In one of those games, Cozens was chasing down a puck when an opponent who was double his weight fell and took him out. Both players crashed into the boards, but it was Cozens who came out of it with a broken leg. While on the mend, he came to the conclusion that he needed to go elsewhere and play against players his own age in order to advance his hockey career.

“It was definitely really tough on me and my family, being so young and leaving them behind and moving down to the bigger city was different but we knew it was necessary for me if I wanted to chase my dreams and goals,” Cozens said. “It was my WHL draft year so I wanted to get some exposure for myself. I definitely wouldn’t change that path at all.”

The move took him to Langley, British Columbia where he joined the Delta Hockey Academy at age 14, staying with a billet family.

Being away from home didn’t affect Cozens as he put all of his focus into improving his game. After two years in British Columbia he was drafted by the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. His play saw him finish top-five on the team in points in 2017-18 (53) and then lead the group this past season (84). NHL Central Scouting ranked him fifth among North American skaters.

[Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

When Cozens hears his name called on Friday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; livestream) , he’ll make history by being the first ever first-round selection from the Yukon. The area has only produced three NHL players: Bryon Baltimore, Jarrett Dueling, and Peter Sturgeon. The 18-year-old, who compares his game to that of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews due to their two-way play, is proud to hopefully one day become the fourth.

“It’s been a long time, for sure,” he said. “Those guys didn’t play too many games. But I want to be that guy who paves the path for the Yukon and gets some exposure for that city and show that players can come from anywhere.”

Cozens has the support of his hometown and still can’t get over when kids come up to him to talk hockey or ask for an autograph or photo.

“I don’t see myself as that special, I see myself as another kid,” he said. “To them, they look up to me and I want to give back to them. These are the people that supported me and people that have helped me get where I am, too.”

The pressures of excelling in his draft year didn’t affect Cozens. Through working with a mental coach and learning how to block out the pressure and outside noise allowed him to enjoy his season, which saw the Hurricanes reach the third round of the WHL playoffs.

Wherever he’s selected, Cozens is ready to do anything to achieve his NHL dream. He’s willing to spend the summer in the city of his new team to better his development, and while he sees himself as a center at 6-foot-3, 183 lbs., he’s open to playing on the wing if that’s what the team wants.

Cozens has literally come a long way to make his NHL dreams a reality. This weekend he’ll take that next step while not forgetting how he got here.

“I had to work really hard to get where I am today,” he said. “It’s taught me that if I want something, I have to work for it and to never give up and always believe. Lots of people told me it wasn’t realistic to play in the NHL coming from there. I didn’t listen to them and always saw it as a dream of mine. I think I’m getting closer to that dream every day.”

NBC Sports presents live, exclusive coverage of first round of the 2019 NHL Draft this Friday, June 21, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey
Kakko ready to make NHL leap next season

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

avalanche injuries
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.