WHL Next Generation is a 22-part series highlighting a handful of the future stars of the Western Hockey League. From first-round bantam draft picks to later-blooming selections, get to know the names of players set to establish themselves as the newest crop of exciting talent to grace the WHL. From August 1 through September 11, get the inside scoop on the incoming crew of 16-year-olds.
He’s just 16-years-old, but Dylan Cozens is already breaking new ground in the WHL.
The first Yukon-born player ever to be taken in the first round of the WHL Bantam Draft, it didn’t take long for the Whitehorse product to start making waves in the league.
Even though he moved away from home in 2015 to attend Delta Hockey Academy in B.C., Cozens said he’s excited to be able to represent his home province on the WHL stage.
“When I go back there, it’s kind of cool talking to everyone and I’m definitely proud to be from Whitehorse,” Cozens said.
It didn’t take long after Cozens was drafted by the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the first round, 19th overall at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft for him to start making a name for himself.
The 6-foot-2, 184-pound centre notched his first WHL goal in his debut against the Saskatoon Blades in November last season.
The power-play marker came with just five seconds left in the third period of the contest, which the hometown Hurricanes lost 5-3.
Cozens went on to play two more regular season games with the Hurricanes before heading back to Yale Hockey Academy for the remainder of his first year of Midget hockey.
He continued to impress at Yale, finishing the season tied for the CSSHL Midget Prep league lead in scoring with 57 points (27 goals, 30 assists) in 30 games.
“I had a little bit of a – not really slow start. It took a while but once I got going I felt really good about my game. I produced a lot for my Yale team,” Cozens said. “As a team, we didn’t really finish where we wanted to but it was still a good experience.”
Cozens and his Yale team were eliminated in the round robin portion of the CSSHL Midget Prep playoffs but the smooth-skating forward still managed to post two goals and two assists in three games.
The then-15-year-old’s play was enough to earn him another call up to the Hurricanes’ roster for the second round of the WHL Playoffs when his minor hockey season finished.
“I didn’t really even expect to play,” Cozens admitted.
But play he did as the youngster became one of the Hurricanes’ top contributors in the second and third rounds of the playoffs.
“Once I started playing and getting ice time and then got a couple of points and stuff, I was really happy with my play,” he said.
Cozens notched three goals and five assists through 12 playoff games, including the game-tying goal with just 3:43 left in Game 7 of the Canes’ Central Division Championship series against the Medicine Hat Tigers.
“It didn’t hit me right away. But then I thought about it, I was like, ‘I just tied Game 7 in round two of the WHL Playoffs,’ and I just wanted to win that game so bad,” Cozens recalled of the goal, which set the stage for Tyler Wong’s series-winning overtime marker later that night.
For Cozens, the experience of playing in his first WHL Playoffs was an unforgettable one.
“It was crazy. The atmosphere and everything and playing in front of all of those fans. Everyone and the pressure of the game. You’re not just playing for the team, you’re playing for the whole city,” he said, adding that he’s hoping that his playoff experience will give him an edge heading into Hurricanes training camp next month.
“It’s obviously really intense hockey and now that I’ve got a little bit of playoff experience going into next year, hopefully I’ll be able to use that.”
In order to do that, the 16-year-old sniper has been hard at work over the off-season to prepare for what lies ahead.
Recently, he suited up for the Hockey Canada U17 Summer Development Camp in Calgary, where he scored a goal and an assist in three games for Team Red.
He’s also been training off the ice every day as he aims to crack the Hurricanes’ opening night roster.
“I need to get bigger, stronger, faster. I need to improve every aspect of my game to be able to compete at that level,” he said.
“I’m just going to have to play my best game there. Nothing’s going to be given to me, I have to earn everything, so I’ve just got to be focused, always work hard and just play my game.”
Cozens and the Hurricanes kick off the 2017 WHL Pre-Season on Sept. 1 when they play host to the Medicine Hat Tigers at the Enmax Centre. Puck drop on that game is at 7 p.m. MDT.