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Sabres pick Cozens and Johnson at NHL Draft, build around Eichel, Dahlin

June 22, 2019, 12:04 PM ET [475 Comments]
Michael Pachla
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

While those of us in Sabreland may have been screaming for Buffalo to draft an elite-playmaker like Trevor Zegras or a pure goal-scorer in the diminutive Cole Caufield with the seventh-overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, general manger Jason Botterill went in a little different direction by drafting center Dylan Cozens. Although his skill-set lacks the dynamics of the other two, Cozens has the traits the Sabres are looking for in a future top-six player. His skating is exceptional, he has a high compete level, he has great size, plays a 200' game and does his scoring 5v5 which has been a focus of Botterill's since he took the Sabres GM position (see Jeff Skinner.)

As fans it’s pretty easy to get caught up in immediate needs of a bottom-feeding team at the draft and as we look at the Sabres they need certain things right now, like scoring. And, as is often the case, we the fanbase of a team that hasn't made the playoffs in eight seasons scoff at patience while forgetting that players drafted outside the top-three or so usually take while to incubate and most won't hope to have an impact for at least a few years. Although it doesn't offer immediate relief, Sabres fans should take solace in, and be reminded of, the fact that they have two premier pieces in place and that the future holds great promise if Botterill builds this thing properly.

Buffalo's window is just beginning to open again after it was shut on the fingers some two years ago. Coming out of the tank years and taking a couple steps back from where they want to be is going to take some time regardless of how quickly we want it. Yes, we know, the clock is ticking on Jack Eichel's contract and a three-year build into (hopefully) a Stanley Cup contender means that half of it will have been wasted. However, should everything fall into place in the latter part of his contract, methinks Eichel will have no problem leading the parade down Delaware Avenue after captaining Buffalo’s first Cup-winning team.

That’s the dream and as we found out with the previous general manager there are no short-cuts, as a host of Cup-winning teams this decade have proven.

The Sabres have Eichel, their No. 1 franchise center, in place for the next seven years. They also have their No. 1 franchise defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin, in place for another 10 years, hopefully, and they have a goal-scoring winger signed for the next eight years. Those are three good pieces to build around and it’s exactly what Botterill is doing through the draft.

Botterill already had Eichel in the fold when he came aboard in 2017 and in his first draft that year he selected two centers with his first two picks—Casey Mittelstadt (8th-overall) who had a year of maturing in college before turning pro, and Marcus Davidsson (37th,) who’s on a longer development curve in Sweden. Center Rasmus Asplund (2016, 33rd,) who could be NHL-ready this season (although there’s no need to rush,) and Sean Malone (2013, 159th,) were picked by his predecessor with Botterill adding two more in Matej Pekar (2018, 94th) and Arttu Ruotsalainen, whom he signed out of Finland in March. Pekar looks ready to turn pro at the age of 19 while the 21 yr. old Roustalainen will either play with Buffalo this year or head back to Finland.

The centers after Eichel come in an array of shapes, sizes and skill levels with the Sabres adding to that with the selection of Cozens, a player they seemed to focused upon prior to the draft. When the Detroit Red Wings went off the board while selecting defenseman Moritz Sieder, the Sabres swooped in. The 6'3" 185 lb. Cozens "is a hard-driving kid who owns the center lane and commands attention whenever he's on the ice," according to Kris Baker's draft preview at sabresprospects.com. "As a shoot-first pivot he launches a heavy shot with a quick release that sees him score from range, but you can easily see his power game and hands quickly elevating pucks from in-tight when he hits the NHL.

"He's an extremely reliable 200' player as well," continued Baker. "The work ethic is in place as he consistently uses his quick feet, long stick and big frame to do his job. He's a low-risk player with a legitimate top-six ceiling out of the box."

New Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger raved about having a center like Cozens who has the skills and "already understands the game without the puck."

"It's always valuable to have more centermen in your lineup," Krueger said to WGR550's Paul Hamilton. Players that play center in the development years usually bring a higher awareness without the puck. They usually bring more strength defensively into their game which is often the hurdle for young players when they come into the NHL, irrelevant to their position."

What the Sabres seemed to have drafted (sorry, Sabres fans) is a possible replacement for Ryan O'Reilly. Cozens seems to have more two-way upside than any center taken by Buffalo since J.T. Compher and as of right now he looks to have a higher ceiling than him. A trio of Eichel, Mittelstadt and Cozens down the middle could be on the horizon and, according to nhl.com today, "the Sabres may have a foundation that could be part of a Stanley Cup playoff team sooner rather than later."

Pick No. 31

Many in Sabreland thought that Buffalo would be trading away the 31st pick in favor of immediate help. While we don't know if that scenario was possible, we do know that they selected left-handed defenseman Ryan Johnson out of the USHL and he will be headed to the University of Minnesota this fall for what looks to be prolonged stint in college.

The pre-draft rankings for Johnson were all over the place ranging from top-25 (McKeen's, Elite Prospects) to the 40's (The Athletic and Future considerations) while Central Scouting had him ranked #33 amongst North American Skaters (basically putting him in the 40's overall.) Wrote Corey Pronman of the Athletic, "[Johnson] was a point of debate all season n the scouting community, but he was an important part of a championship team (Clark Cup Champion Sioux Falls Stampede.)"

According to Pronman, Johnson adds a dimension to the Sabres d-pipeline that's lacking with none being able to"skate and move the puck like he does."

The consensus is that Johnson could be a top-four NHL'er and will add to a diverse collection of defensemen with top-four potential. Buffalo's d-pipeline comes in various shapes and sizes with varying skill-sets. However one common theme they all have, or were drafted for, is their ability to skate as well as move the puck and/or get that puck to the forwards. Whether it's William Borgen who has good size and plays with an edge, the hulking Mattias Samuelsson (6'4", 220 lbs,) the crafty Lawrence Pilut or the "puck-distributing, zone-exit machine," Jacob Bryson (according to Baker,) they all have the ability to transition the puck up ice.

Which fits very well with what they want to build.

The Sabres have their franchise defenseman in Dahlin and although they'd like to have a true No. 2, they may not need that because at 18 yrs. old he already proved that he can make his d-partner better. It looks as if Buffalo will be able to surround him with a group of top-four defensemen that Krueger can mold into a solid defense-corps, similar to what they've been doing in Boston by surrounding Zdeno Chara with a group of skilled and highly capable defensemen who get that puck and get it up ice.

Buffalo already has the two most difficult pieces to attain--a No. 1 center and a No.1 defenseman--and both of them are franchise players, which is great. The next part is building around them which, as we've seen, has it's own pratfalls. However, Botterill and company seem to be on the right path although it's going to take a little longer that those in Sabreland would like. Yeah we see the immediate needs and pine for the flash, and rightfully so, but Cozens and Johnson seem to be to real good complimentary pieces to fill around the nucleus of the team.

Which isn't bad either.
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