The Buffalo Sabres walked up to the podium in Vancouver, BC in June and selected Lethbridge Hurricanes center Dylan Cozens with the seventh-overall pick in the NHL Draft. The 6'3" 183 lb. Yukon native has the NHL frame, skating, skill-level and two-way game to make the jump from draft prospect to NHLer quickly and it was possible that he could've at least got a nine-game run with the Sabres before they had to decide whether or not he should go back to junior.
However, a development camp injury may have scuttled that possibility.
Buffalo still has two holes in the top six up-front. They could really use a No. 2 center to give 20 yr. old Casey Mittelstadt some protection as he grows into that role and they also need a top-six right wing behind Sam Reinhart. As of now there are no legit options on the team at that center spot save for Mittelstadt, who struggled in that role as a rookie last season, and putting Cozens in that role as an 18 yr. old is not an option either.
However, Cozens has the ability to play right win and despite Buffalo's stated plan to let prospects properly develop before bringing them to the big club, there can be exceptions and Cozens may have fit that mold.
In a case of talent meeting need, Cozens has an NHL frame already as well as the skating, which is the big prerequisite in today's NHL. He's very quick on his skates which allows him to get to open ice, he's got enough speed to get into the play on the backcheck and his balance allows him to pivot in and out of situations at a moment's notice. Cozens can use his NHL-level shot to score and has the panache to set up as evidenced by his 34 goals and 50 assists in 68 WHL games. The fact that he was very aggressive in a tough Western Hockey League also bodes well for his powerforward projections and it not unusual for a center prospect to move to the wing at the NHL-level while he gets acclimated to the NHL game.
With the market for top-six right wingers very thin, the trade route could be a possibility but finding a top-six forward takes capital and the Sabres only viable trade chip for that job will more than likely be spent on a center.
Right-handed defenseman Rasmus Ristolianen's name has been in the rumor mill for months and his name is still being bantered around at the national level as a top trade candidate. As a top-four d-man with size, skating and offensive ability (four consecutive 40-point seasons) who has snarl and can eat up big minutes, Ristolainen certainly has a package of attributes that could be very enticing to a team in need of a top-four defender. Hell, even Buffalo could use that although if the right offer comes along, he's not untouchable. And that "right offer" more than likely revolves around a top-six center.
Ristolainen is signed for three more seasons with at a very manageable $5.4 million cap-hit and he will have a fresh start in Buffalo under new head coach Ralph Krueger. Whether that's appealing to him is another story as there have been rumors of him wanting to be traded.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were said to be very interested in Ristolainen at the trade deadline and into this early part of the summer as they have a lot of talented forwards but could use a righty on defense. Ristolainen's name has been mentioned with a couple other teams but one that makes a lot of sense is the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers and the Sabres have been on parallel paths for years now and they both have what the other might need. Edmonton has Connor McDavid as their No. 1 center and have been playing center Leon Draisaitl on the wing. What they're lacking is defensemen and Ristolainen could pair with either Oskar Klefbom or Darnell Nurse in the top-four. Coming back in the deal for Buffalo would be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a 26 yr. old center with two-years left on his contract at a $6 million AAV. After eight seasons in Edmonton where he fluctuated between solid and potential breakout, "RNH" had himself a real nice season scoring 69 points (28+41) in 82 games for the Oilers in 2018-19.
In a scenario like that, RNH would be behind Jack Eichel on the depth chart and the Sabres would have three of their wings covered with 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner and free agent signee Marcus Johansson on the left and Reinhart on the right. Using 31 yr. old Johansson and 26 yr. old young vet Nugent-Hopkins on the second line would provide plenty of skill, saavy and experience to offer up a sheltered landing spot for a player like Cozens who has top-six, or even top-line, potential.
Cozens' major hurdle right now is recovering from a development camp thumb injury. In the final day of camp during the 3-on-3 tournament, an attempted hip check by defenseman Brandon Hickey went array and dislocated Cozens' thumb to the point where he needed surgery. Recovery time is expected to be about three months which would take him right to the start of the season. All that potential for the upcoming season pretty much went out the window as lot of his off-season workouts will be tempered and training camp might be out of reach as well.
No doubt things needed to fall into place for Cozens to have a serious shot to make the team as an 18 yr. old and Sabres general manager Jason Botterill heavily favors proper development, but were it not for that thumb injury one never knows. Cozens just inked his three-year entry-level deal two days ago and should he go back to junior (which is likely) Buffalo will have a slide-year before his deal kicks in.
That said, they may not have minded losing that extra year if things fell into place and he fit into the lineup beginning in 2019-20.