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Young Sabres will need to step up after a Jack Eichel departure

Sabres captain Jack Eichel shared his displeasure with the organization and how it handled his season-ending neck injury.
Credit: AP
Buffalo Sabres forward Dylan Cozens (24) during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — All three of the Buffalo Sabres who started the season with a 'C' or an 'A' on their chests ended up with a season-ending injury between captain Jack Eichel, and alternates Jake McCabe and Kyle Okposo.

In the team's exit interviews on Monday, Eichel expressed his dissatisfaction with the organization and its handling of his season-ending neck injury, while Jake McCabe will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Where does that leave the Sabres from a leadership standpoint? After his rookie season, at just 20 years old, Dylan Cozens has made a strong case for himself as a captain and leader.

2 On Your Side's Sabres insider of WGR radio Paul Hamilton said Cozens is "the perfect direction for this team."

Cozens is hoping to land some type of leadership role with the Sabres in the future.

"I’m still a very young player in this league, so I don’t expect guys to come in and look at me as a leader this soon, but I definitely want to be a leader on this team, for sure, and a guy that can be someone that guys look to and talk to," Cozens said during his Tuesday morning exit interview.

"Obviously, as a young guy right now, I don’t expect that, but I do expect that out of myself in the future, for sure. I want to be here for a long time and I’d definitely like to be a leader on this team for a long time."

Credit: AP
New York Rangers' Ryan Lindgren, left, and Buffalo Sabres' Dylan Cozens fight during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in New York. (Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via AP)

After Eichel and McCabe were injured, forward Sam Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen both took on alternate roles. When the third captain, Okposo, suffered a season-ending injury, Don Granato didn't name a replacement, saying he put some thought into doing so but didn't want to put more on the plates of his young players or add any extra egos.

When Hamilton asked Granato if naming another captain was in the cards late in the season, he had a particular forward in mind - Casey Mittelstadt.

"There are times when they start the period Casey Mittelstadt holds a meeting, right off the faceoff circle, and he's the one talking and you look at who's out there it's (Rasmus) Dahlin and (Henri) Jokiharju, he's probably the oldest one out there... and I thought, you know this is a guy that has really showed a bit of a leadership role with some of the young players," Hamilton said about the 22-year-old forward.

"I thought maybe it might be a good time to let him wear the 'A' for the rest of the season, but I do get where Granato is coming from. He doesn't want to put too much on their plates."

Mittelstadt said on Tuesday, "I obviously want to be a leader. I think every guy wants to be a leader... If something needs to be said, and I think I'm the guy to say it, I'll say it."

Credit: AP
Buffalo Sabres' Casey Mittelstadt plays during an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Sabres finished in last place in the National Hockey League and will receive at least a top-three pick in the upcoming draft, but they were able to develop young players this season, including 23-year-old Tage Thompson, who is impressed by the leadership he's seen from Cozens and Mittlestadt.

"I think they both had terrific seasons. Casey was on a roll and just taking over games. (Cozens') first year in the league, that’s pretty impressive. I think that season’s going to do nothing but good things for everybody," Thompson said.

"Not being successful as a team and then fighting through that adversity is only going to make us better in the long run when we go through things next season. It’s going to be a little bit easier to get through them and we’ll know we’re capable of getting through them. As far as those two guys go, they had great seasons and I’m excited to see them next year, too."