By Jonah Fleisher
This past year has obviously been a hard one for people all across the world, with COVID-19 sweeping across the globe and halting normal life as we know it. For most junior hockey players, this resulted in severely shortened or cancelled seasons, with many talented players being stripped of a vitally important year in their development.
This was no different in the Western Hockey League, where they were forced to strip down their normal 68-game schedule to fit only 23 contests. For the Edmonton Oil Kings and highly touted goalie prospect Sebastian Cossa — who grew up in nearby Fort McMurray — it was, of course, mentally challenging to cope with the isolation.
“It was a different year, for sure,” said Cossa. “Obviously, the only two places we can go are home and the rink. You’re not allowed to see family or anyone else outside of your cohort, so that’s been tough.”
But despite all the challenges off the ice, hockey offered the players a respite. The team had a very talented group of players and finished third league-wide in the shortened 2019-20 season. And going into an abbreviated 23-game 2020 21 campaign, the team had one thing on their minds: winning.
“When we’re at the rink, it’s business as usual,” said Cossa. “We all just want to win some games.”
And win they did.
Edmonton took the league by storm going 20-2-0-1 with a pristine .891-win percentage. Backstopped by Cossa and his four shutouts, they allowed the fewest goals in the league. And with a terrifying offense led by projected 2021 first-rounder Dylan Guenther and 2020 St. Louis Blues’ first-rounder Jake Neighbours, they tied for the most goals scored as well. Their sparkling +63 goal differential outpaced the next-best team by an astounding 17 goals.
“I’m extremely confident in the squad that we have,” said Cossa. “I think we would have made a deep playoff push. We wanted a Memorial Cup this year and we could have gotten there. It’s frustrating because we’ve had a very strong team two years in a row, but obviously there’s not much we can do about a pandemic. At the end of the day, we showed how strong a team we are in the games we got to play. Now it’s time to gear up for next year when there will hopefully be playoffs, and we’ll bring it for then.”
A 17-year-old Cossa had made a mark in his WHL debut in 2019-20, putting up a .921 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average for the Oil Kings.
“My first game I got a 40-save shutout, and in my second start I got pulled after the first [period],” he said. “It’s one of those leagues where every night is a new night. Something that I learned after last year is that it’s really tough coming into the league with the speed and skill of every player. You’re playing with older guys now so that’s the biggest challenge going from Midget to junior.”
Cossa came back even stronger in 2020-21, posting an otherworldly .941 save percentage and 1.51 goals against average. For his outstanding performance, he was given the Oil Kings’ Most Valuable Player award.
“Individually, with it being a shorter season in my draft year, I’ve really needed to show what I have,” Cossa remarked on the importance of this season. “I’ve had to focus on bringing my best every night. You can’t really have nights off, so the consistency in my game this year has been key.”
“This year, I’ve been able to rely on the confidence that I have in my game. I know I can bring it every night, so I just try to go out there and play my game.”
What’s even more impressive is that Cossa accomplished those numbers while playing virtually every game for the Oil Kings. After suiting up for 33 games while splitting the starting duties in his rookie season, the young netminder started 19 of 23 games in his second year with the club.
“It was huge for him,” said Oil Kings general manager Kirt Hill. “This year we had the luxury of only playing 23 games. The workload wasn’t as high as in a normal season, where you would be trying to plan it out over a 68-game schedule. But through those 23, he was the guy we were going to run with, obviously.
“It was a big year for him. He had a great opportunity to showcase himself and he really took the next step. Being able to play those back-to-backs and three-in-fours — that’s a lot of hockey in a short period of time, but he was up for the challenge as he proved all season long. He maybe had one or two games where he didn’t get a couple of bounces the way he wanted to, but his consistency was second to none this season.”
Through it all, Cossa has been unfazed by any pressure surrounding the draft. Instead, he’s been able to just focus on keeping pucks out of his net — and he’s done a hell of a job of it.
“I’ve really tried to not let [the pressure] affect me at all,” he said. “Obviously, some nights when you have a tough game it gets harder that when you play well. I just tried to play my game this year and let my play speak for itself. At the end of the day, that’s what the scouts are looking at. They want someone on the ice who can stop pucks, so I’m going to let my game do the speaking and not focus on it too much.”
Cossa, who was born in Hamilton, Ontario, is a Leafs fan, as is the rest of his family. “But,” he says with a laugh, “during draft day we’ll see if that changes.”
The talented goaltender began skating when he was around three or four years old, eventually lacing up the pads for the first time at eight years old.
“I started playing goalie when I was a second year Novice,” said Cossa. “It wasn’t even that I wanted to play goalie for sure — I just tried it out in August and liked it. There were three goalies at the start and I was the last one standing by Christmas, so I just stuck with it.”
“I was playing Peewee AA in Fort McMurray for a while and I wasn’t really anybody. Then in Bantam second year I went down to Fort Saskatchewan to play AAA and started making a name for myself there.”
Cossa has always had an advantage over his peers due to his size. By his first year playing in Fort Saskatchewan, his age-14 season, he was already 6’4”. Today, standing two inches taller, Cossa’s size still serves as a major advantage in the crease.
“I’m a big guy — 6’6” — so my size is my biggest strength,” Cossa said of his current strengths. “I’m tight throughout the body; I don’t let anything squeak through me. I track the puck well. I have good hands. I’m like a third defenseman back there always talking to my defenseman and just trying to control the game.”
The young netminder idolized Carey Price growing up and tries to draw inspiration from the Canadiens’ elite goaltender when he’s on the ice.
“Carey Price has always been one of my idols,” Cossa said. “Just watching his game, the way he plays, how calm he is, I try to mimic my game after that a bit — I admire how cool and calm he is in the net.”
Off the ice, Cossa is a leader in the Edmonton dressing room. The talented prospect is well liked by teammates, coaches, and staff, and he’s also unafraid to speak up when the situation calls for it.
“Sebastian’s a guy that his teammates gravitate towards and respect,” said Hill. “He’s very likeable. He’s got a great personality. From a leadership standpoint, his consistency speaks for itself. He hasn’t had too many nights off in the last year. His numbers and consistency stopping the puck as well as his ability to play back-to-back games or three-in-four-night scenarios is fantastic. His play and stability in the net has really been key for him from a leadership standpoint.
“He’s a vocal guy. You can hear him out there in-game too, talking to the defensemen. He has it in him to speak up in the room as well.”
The talented youngster is “pretty loose” before games, as he puts it. He doesn’t have a hard and set pre-game routine, preferring instead to warm up playing two-touch soccer — also known as sewer ball — with his teammates for 15 to 20 minutes.
Cossa prides himself on his mindset and his ability to move on after letting in a goal. That’s what has allowed him to be such a dependable force in net for the Oil Kings, especially when he is relied upon to play in as many games as he did this past season.
“I’m really confident in myself and my game,” he said. “When I let a goal in, I think I’m pretty solid where I can just let it go. Obviously, you can’t do anything about it after the fact. You can’t sulk about it; you can’t lower your head and let it affect your game. After I let the first one in, I just tell myself that’s the only one they’re getting and then I reset.”
Even when he lets one in early, Cossa is always able to bounce back and shut the door. It allows the rest of the team to remain calm and gives them a chance to take back control of the game. With their dependable starter in net, the Oil Kings are hardly ever out of a game.
“One of his biggest attributes is his confidence,” said Hill. “He’s got a swagger to him. He’s very confident in his abilities and not too many things rattle him. Even if he lets one in early, he might not let one in the rest of the game. He locks things down pretty well in there, and his confidence is extremely high in the net.”
But even with all his success the past two seasons and the supreme confidence that he has in his game, Cossa knows there is always more work to be done.
“I work extremely hard,” he said. “I want to be the best goalie I can. Every summer I work with my goalie coach to determine areas for improvement and set out to achieve those goals so I can come into the next season a better player. The group that I work with and the people I have around me are amazing with that. We have just continued to put in the work to develop and improve. We’re never satisfied.”
Even with COVID-19 closing everything down in March of last year, Cossa made sure keep grinding. Once protocols began to ease in the summer, he got right back into the gym and continued his on-ice goalie sessions. He also started to follow a program called True Movement, run by fitness and health coach Erin Baker out of Edmonton.
“It’s a garuda-pilates mix with a lot of stretching and off-balance stuff,” Cossa said of the program. “Going through summer, the goal is just to keep my body loose and be ready for workouts and on-ice training. I found her program helped a lot with that last summer. I couldn’t do it this season because of the COVID-19 guidelines, but next year I’m definitely going to continue with it.”
Going into the draft, Cossa and his goalie coach have already identified the areas of his game where he would like improve during the offseason.
“This summer I’m going to take another step with my puck handling,” he said. “I want to turn that into a strength for me. I want to be a guy who can handle the puck and really be that third defenseman out there. Every team wants a goalie who can do that, so I’d be really happy if I can develop that part of my game.”
Placing 24th in DraftPro’s rankings, Cossa can be the first CHL goaltender selected since Malcolm Subban was taken, ironically, 24th overall by the Boston Bruins in 2012. But Cossa hasn’t let the pressure affect him and, whenever he does have questions, he has been able to count on his teammates and coaches for support.
“[Dylan Guenther and I] talk a lot,” said Cossa. “We talk to our coaches a lot, too. We also have guys who have been through the process already in [New York Rangers’ 2019 second-rounder] Matthew Robertson and Jake Neighbours — both high picks in the previous two drafts. It’s definitely a different year with coronavirus and everything being conducted over Zoom, but we’ve been able to go to each other with any questions we have.”
“It’s obviously been different this year with the interviews taking place over Zoom or on the phone,” Hill added. “That’s been a bit of a change for the guys that are really attractive to the NHL teams. But I think our communications team and our staff in general do a great job of getting these guys prepared for what they’re going to have to go through.”
But with the draft fast approaching, Hill would be remiss not to give credit to his star goaltender for the way he has handled the pressure this season.
“[Cossa and Guenther] have both done a terrific job of handling not only the pressure but the time commitment as well.”
Once again, even with the season over, Cossa has tried to just keep his mind on hockey. Whatever happens with the draft will happen. That, he cannot control. But with yet another offseason of hard work ahead of him, he is just focused on improving his game and becoming the best goaltender he can be.
For the NHL team that winds up drafting him, that is all you can ask for.
Want to know all about the 2021 NHL Draft class? Grab a copy of the DraftPro Guide or Yearbook available in digital or print editions today!