TORONTO – As training camp narratives go, this one is getting pretty interesting. Dylan Cozens looks every bit the part of a first-round draft pick – and isn’t remotely looking like an 18-year-old.
In the Buffalo Sabres’ otherwise nondescript 3-0 preseason loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Friday night in Scotiabank Arena, Cozens put up a strong showing in his first game in an NHL arena while playing against a Toronto lineup that included the likes of elite forwards Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
“It’s interesting how somebody with that much skill and personality is able to adjust in such a short period of time,” said coach Ralph Krueger. “He started camp a little tentative and hesitant, and the last few days we noticed it already in practice that he was opening up a little bit and just playing his game. Tonight, we saw a confirmation of that and what his ability is. The speed and some of the situations were exciting for us to watch.”
Cozens, who didn’t look out of place in the preseason opener against Pittsburgh Monday at Penn State, didn’t register a point Friday but he had three shots on goal in the game and showed excellent body control with the puck both in the offensive zone and neutral zone. That was especially true in one first-period sequence where he got himself out of trouble by the Buffalo bench by keeping the puck out of the middle of the ice and getting it to the Sabres defense.
“Every day I’m getting more comfortable with the puck and making plays,” Cozens said. “I didn’t want to turn the puck over there. I wasn’t seeing much so I just held on to it, turned it back and got it to the D.”
John Gilmour received the pass on the tape of his left-handed stick, blew by an out-of-position Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman and skated toward the net with the speed of a forward.
Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith barely moved his glove before the puck hit the back of the net Monday night at Penn State. Gilmour’s goal, the Buffalo Sabres’ first of the preseason, was the first tangible evidence of the speed with which new coach Ralph Krueger wants the team to play with the puck.
“Of course, the goal caught everybody’s attention,” Krueger acknowledged Friday morning.
However, the Sabres expected that sort of play from Gilmour. The defenseman’s remarkable speed and skill made him a priority signing when free agency opened July 1. They’re more interested in seeing what the 26-year-old can do without the puck.
Playing strong in the defensive zone could help Gilmour emerge from a position battle that has intensified with the absence of Brandon Montour, who will miss an undetermined amount of time because of a hand injury. Gilmour’s next test will come tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will have Auston Matthews in the lineup when the puck drops at 7 p.m.
“From first game to second, I thought he took a big step,” said Conor Sheary, who played on Cozens’ wing. “I think tonight he seemed a lot more confident with the puck. Him and I had a little bit of chemistry and were able to find each other a couple of times. You expect that from a young guy, being a little nervous in the first game. Tonight he really settled down and played his game.”
Cozens, from the Yukon Territory, was particularly pleased to get a chance to play in one of Canada’s hockey meccas.
“They’re a team with lots of history,” he said. “So to be able to play in that building in front of these fans who are so crazy was an amazing atmosphere.
With junior eligibility left, it remains more likely than not that Cozens could return to Lethbridge of the Western League. But more strong work from Cozens could have the Sabres pondering keeping him for nine games before the first year of his entry-level deal kicks in.
That’s especially true if Cozens continues to outplay returnee Casey Mittelstadt, who has struggled mightily at times in his two preseason games to date.
Cozens has played two of Buffalo’s three games thus far. If he gets in another one, perhaps Saturday’s rematch against the Leafs in KeyBank Center, it would certainly be a sign the Sabres want to get as long a look at him as possible.
“We all know he’s a good player. He was drafted where he was for a reason,” Sheary said. “We had some chemistry which was good. Hopefully we can build off that and continue to grow. He likes to learn, talks to me a lot and that’s a good thing as well.”
“I’d be happy to play,” Cozens said. “I like playing the game and I love playing at this level. I want to go out and prove myself, try to stick around as long as I can.”
The game in brief: The Sabres hit the halfway mark of their preseason schedule as the result left both teams at 1-2. Matthews had an assist on the first Toronto goal and scored the second one, his third of the preseason. Matt Read scored the other midway through the third period. Nylander had a monster game with six shots on goal and 15 attempts. Tage Thompson led Buffalo with four shots on goal.
Interesting contributions: Curtis Lazar had an active game up front for the Sabres with three shots and a team-high five hits.
Net report: Linus Ullmark had another strong showing in goal, stopping 21 of 23 shots for the Sabres while playing two periods. He stopped 18 of 19 shots while playing 30 minutes in Tuesday’s loss at Columbus.
Another injury: Veteran Kevin Porter took the morning skate but did not play in the game due to a lower-body injury, believed to have occurred when he blocked a shot during the workout. Rasmus Asplund took Porter’s place and the natural center played left wing on a line with Jean-Sebastien Dea in the middle and Lazar on the right side.
Line report: The Sabres started Vladimir Sobotka between Remi Elie and Tage Thompson. Cozens was between Sheary and Arttu Ruotsalainen and Mittelstadt centered C.J. Smith and Kyle Okposo. The defense pairs were Jake McCabe-Henri Jokiharju, John Gilmour-Will Borgen and Jacob Bryson-Zach Redmond.
Missing persons report: The notable scratches for the Sabres included Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, Jimmy Vesey, Rasmus Ristolainen, Marcus Johansson, Colin Miller, Marco Scandella, Evan Rodrigues and goalie Carter Hutton. The Leafs played this one without the likes of John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Tyson Barrie, Jake Muzzin and Jason Spezza.
The rematch: The teams meet again at 7 Saturday night in the first of two home preseason games for the Sabres. Many of the above scratches on both sides are likely to play in that game. The game will be televised on MSG using the Leafs’ Sportsnet announcers.
“It’s nice with the puck but we need to first of all get a strong defensive foundation here, which we could then explode out of hopefully,” Krueger continued. “John shows that potential, so we’re excited to work with him here and seeing him in action again today.”
In addition to Montour, the Sabres will be without Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) at the start of the regular season. Matt Hunwick is not expected to play this season because of a neck condition. Though Gilmour still faces difficult odds, he’s been given an opportunity to showcase his skills on the power play and earned a more prominent role as the game progressed at Penn State.
Gilmour finished with two shots on goal and a plus-2 rating. Most important, he did not make any egregious mistakes with defensive-zone coverage or puck management. The performance was the latest example of Gilmour’s progress since he joined Hartford, the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate, in 2016-17.
Gilmour scored six goals among 25 points with a minus-39 rating in 76 games as a rookie. Like many young players, he struggled to transition from college hockey to the professional game. Last season, Gilmour ranked second among all AHL defensemen in goals (20) – which was a Hartford franchise single-season record for a defenseman – and points (54), trailing only Rochester’s Zach Redmond (21) in the former category. Gilmour was named an AHL all-star for a second consecutive season.
“My defensive play has gotten better every year since I’ve turned pro,” Gilmour, who won an NCAA Championship with Providence in 2015, said. “It was definitely a learning curve going from college to the pros. The forwards are a lot better. There’s world-class talent. The best players in the world. I think I’m defending just fine. I’m using my feet and stick to defend well. It’s all about effort in the D zone.”
Gilmour has played 33 NHL games with the New York Rangers, scoring two goals among five points with a minus-14 rating. The former seventh-round draft pick became the first rookie defenseman in Rangers history to score a game-winning overtime goal, accomplishing the feat against the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28, 2018.
Despite his upside, Gilmour’s future is uncertain. Since he’s on a one-way contract, Gilmour would need to clear waivers in order to be sent to Rochester at the end of camp. He likely would be an attractive option for teams in need of a defenseman. The goal against Pittsburgh was not an isolated display of skill, either.
“That’s something I try to bring to the table every night,” Gilmour said. “I try to showcase my speed every night. That goal was a good example of it. I’m going to try to make plays like that all the time.”