Dylan Cozens was 12 years old when his NHL-sized dreams began to outgrow the reality of his life in Whitehorse. The Yukon's only city offered little in the way of competition for a player of Cozens' talent, leaving him to join a men's league before he was a teenager.
The experiment left Cozens with a broken leg. Two years later, he left home for the Delta Hockey Academy in British Columbia, setting off the chain of events that would lead to him being selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the seventh pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
The lessons of his upbringing traveled with him. Veteran teammate Kyle Okposo commented on Cozens' "old-school hockey" mentality after the 20-year-old shook the Sabres with a third-period fight against New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren on Tuesday.
"I think it just comes from being a kid raised in the Yukon and never really having it easy, always having to work for everything," Cozens said. "Just the way I was raised; I like having that grit in my game. I think that's something that's big to have and I like being a player that can play both sides of the game."
Video: POSTGAME: Cozens
The fight was a thrilling moment in what has been an otherwise disappointing stretch for the Sabres. Perhaps more importantly, it was a microcosm of what has made Cozens stand out through the first two months of his NHL career. Yes, the package of skills one would hope for from a top-10 pick are all there, the speed and the shot and the sense with the puck.
Yet, ask a coach or a veteran teammate about the 20-year-old rookie, and the first trait that inevitably comes up is his maturity. Many young players enter the NHL needing to build a game around their offensive talents after dominating lesser competition in juniors. Cozens, by all accounts, came to Buffalo with a hunger to establish his defensive game and let the offense come as a byproduct.
Sabres coach Ralph Krueger likened Cozens' approach to that of a prospect who developed in the European pro leagues, citing Victor Olofsson as an example. Olofsson played five seasons in the Swedish Hockey League and another in Rochester before catching on with the Sabres last season.
"What's unique with Dylan is you can see his character in that he clearly was playing this game already in junior hockey which isn't necessary with somebody with those offensive skills," Krueger said.
"With his offensive skill set and the amount of time he would have been on the puck and in offensive situations, to actually develop the awareness that he has without the puck and the ability to support his linemates at an elite level defensively already is truly a compliment to the work he's been [doing]."
Cozens got his first taste of NHL competition during the 2019 preseason. His confidence was apparent, but the Sabres gave him a developmental to-do list and sent him for one more season with his junior team in Lethbridge. Krueger said Cozens checked every box, honing his two-way game and using the long offseason to add bulk to his 6-foot-3 frame.
The comments from Krueger were similar Tuesday, after Cozens was given a rest day while the team played against Philadelphia. He was challenged to keep his feet moving through the neutral zone and possess the puck in his return to the lineup. Once again, he checked all the boxes.
"Just a wonderful kid to be coaching," Krueger said.
Which brings us to Cozens' veteran teammates, none of whom have gone out of their way to mention the rookie's scoring. Instead, Eric Staal pointed out early in the season how Cozens seems to have a knack for processing the game and learning from mistakes.
"I think it's his mind and his brain for the game," Staal said. "You can see it at work daily, whether it be practice or even in games. If something didn't go right, the next time he does it, he does it differently and gives himself a better result. I think he's always engaged."
Taylor Hall, after skating on a line with Cozens last month, commented on the rookie's forechecking and ability to win battles against larger players.
"He's very advanced there and that's what the NHL's about," Hall said. "That's probably the hardest thing to get used to is just playing against men and having to force your will on games and he seems to be able to do that."
Then there was Okposo, who lit up when speaking about Cozens on Tuesday.
"His maturity level for a 20-year-old is off the charts, and he's only going to continue to get better," Okposo said. "The fact that he did that just speaks to the person that he is, to the kind of hockey player that he is and he's going to play in this league for a long time.
"I was extremely proud of him. He's just a great guy and he's a good hockey player."