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THE VERDICT: WHL centers Dach, Cozens set to make NHL jump

Among a plethora of centers atop the draft board, friendly foes battle it out to be WHL's best

by Bob Verdi /

VANCOUVER - It isn't often that you'll find a thundering herd of writers at a yacht club, yet here we are in a world-class city on a shiny Thursday at a marina. And, we aren't even in our usual state, marinated.

The only time I've ever been on a boat, it had "Wendella" written on the side. But this special occasion is to interview a few of the very elite prospects who will be selected quickly at Friday evening's National Hockey League Draft.

This interloper's focus is on two centers, Dylan Cozens and Kirby Dach. Either, or neither, could be chosen by the Blackhawks, who hold the precious No. 3 slot and aren't dropping many hints. Mark Kelley, the team's vice president of amateur scouting, will say only what everybody's saying.

"They both bring that Western Canada game with them," he allowed. Understand that, way back with the Original Six, players from Western Canada always believed they were a bit tougher than players from Eastern Canada. In this time of the Original 31, whether the bromide is true or not, nothing has changed.

Cozens is not only from Western Canada, he's from the Yukon, which is above British Columbia. He hails from Whitehorse, the capital, with a population of only 25,000. If you veer too far to your left in the Yukon, welcome to Alaska. In the Yukon, there are a lot of mountains, a lot of open spaces and a lot of fish. I don't know how Cozens would handle a big city like Chicago. On the other hand, he's probably really independent.

Cozens is also really good. He gathered 34 goals and 50 assists with Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League this past season. He's 6-foot-3, 185 pounds and has been projected as a possible Ryan Getzlaf. At 18, Cozens wins raves for his work ethic and heavy shot. He's physical and still growing. Also, on Thursday, we discovered he is still wearing torn jeans.

Not long ago, Nick Saban, the famed coach of Alabama's dynastic Crimson Tide, groused about current fashion statements. As a child, he bashfully went to school in West Virginia donning tattered pants because his family couldn't afford better. Now, the kids buy them with alterations, and gaping holes, included.

"Wherever I end up, I'll be happy," said Cozens, who looks young even for his age. He's battled Dach often but considers him a friend off-ice. Indeed, the two of them hung out Thursday, after league officials shooed us plebeians out of the yacht's dining room.

"Who's gotten the best of our matchups, Kirby or me?" mused Cozens. "I'd say we wound up pretty even."

Dach, another top-five choice in waiting, is even more impressive physically at 6-4 and 198 pounds. He had 25 goals plus 48 assists with Saskatoon of the WHL, and is deemed a more prototypical center than Cozens because of his playmaking, vision, plus a penchant to pass the puck first. When I asked him about Cozens, Dach asked me why there were a bunch of grubby writers creeping around this beautiful yacht.

(OK, I made that up.)

"Dylan is a great player," said Dach. "He's fast, skilled and goes to dirty areas. When he was on the ice, we always tried to get our top defensive pairing out there against him."

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Dach has been forecast optimistically as the next David Krejci, which would work as well as Getzlaf. Dach said he would like to get bigger yet. Not taller so much, but maybe wider and slightly thicker. He already has tremendous reach, and in addition to that wingspan, perhaps a certain edge about him.

One NHL talent scout theorized that, besides Jack Hughes, wearing shades on the yacht, and Kaapo Kakko, Dach is the best equipped teenager of this year's ample crop to make a mark in the NHL. Because coaches in the junior ranks depend on stars like Cozens and Dach to produce points, there is the riddle that doesn't go away: can these boys play 200 feet like professional men, without the puck?

"Defensively, that's where you have to look at other things," noted Kelley. "Their hockey sense. Their compete factor."

All these hotshots have been on tour of sorts, and they know how to deal with the media, even in strange surroundings like a yacht. Dach did admit that, after meeting with multiple teams, he has certain inklings. But they all intone that any NHL jersey will do.

"Soon," concluded Dach, "we'll all know where we're headed." 

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