Dylan Cozens entered his rookie season with a clear set of priorities. He focused on defense early, knowing he would need to prove himself trustworthy to stick in the NHL at 19 years old. He knew he would eventually find the time and place for a fight, his way of earning the respect of veteran teammates.
With those boxes checked, Cozens has his sights set on offense entering Year 2.
"It's going to be a big summer for me," he said. "I have high expectations for myself. I want to come back next year way better and I'm going to work as hard as I can this summer to come back and be a difference maker and be a guy who can produce.
"I'm going to expect myself to be a guy who can produce next year."
Cozens tallied 13 points (4+9) in 41 games, including a productive stretch that saw him tally seven assists over an eight-game span in April. The speed, shot, and instincts that made him a top-10 talent in the 2019 NHL Draft all show up on his highlight reel.
Video: Dylan Cozens Rookie Highlights
But it was Cozens' maturity that seemed to strike teammates and coaches the most. He was lauded for his defensive commitment early on, often times an adjustment for players used to dominating in Canadian juniors. His two fights - both at Madison Square Garden - came in efforts to spark the team on otherwise off nights.
"He's one player that has such a competitive fire that if he can't help us in one way or help his linemate or teammate in one way, he's going to find another way," Sabres interim coach Don Granato said.
"… He does have a lot of leadership qualities. I don't even want to say potential. They're qualities. He has leadership components immediately that affect his team and teammates in a very positive matter."
Granato put more on Cozens' plate as the season progressed. The rookie began seeing regular ice time at center after being eased into the NHL on the wing. He eventually was given top-line matchups, responsibilities that coincided with his seven-assist run in April.
One of those games happened to be in Washington on the evening of Nicklas Backstrom's 1,000th game. Cozens tallied two assists for his first multi-point outing despite seeing the majority of his ice time against either Backstrom or Alex Ovechkin, who were playing on separate lines.
When it wasn't Backstrom, Cozens found himself playing against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron.
"Playing those guys the minutes is the most difference and how smart they are in making plays," Cozens said. "It almost seems like they never make mistakes. I definitely loved playing against those guys and matching up against the top line. Yeah, hopefully we'll see more of that in the future."
Granato said Cozens embraced the challenge.
"I wasn't overlooking the lessons and the experience and needed to be gained and could be gained," Granato said. "I would play Dylan against Sidney Crosby one game and he wouldn't get that ice time the next game or that responsibility. He was upset, he was not happy with it."
Video: Sabres Embedded: Dylan Cozens' rookie season
Cozens did eventually hit a wall to end a rookie season that included multiple injury-related absences as well as a COVID-19 diagnosis. Granato said the rookie was dealing with bumps and bruises while going without a point over his final eight games.
Cozens stopped short of accepting that as an excuse but admitted a bit of rest would do him well after the season. Ultimately, though, he was left wanting more.
"I definitely learned how hard it is to play in this league and produce in this league," he said. "I mean, there's a lot of things I'm going to take from this year. I definitely learned a lot and I'm going to use that to build my game this offseason so I can come back and be more consistent next year in producing.
"I mean, it's going to take a lot of work and I know it is. I'm ready to get started."