Detroit — The bus ride from Toledo to Indianapolis was about three hours Monday, which for Sebastian Cossa was a breeze.
Cossa played junior hockey in the Western Hockey League and 10-hour bus rides were common. Now, that’s a road trip.
“You get to catch up on your sleep,” Cossa said. “Play cards, watch some movies, guys would bring their Xbox. But, yeah, like I said, you sleep.”
The rest, right now, might come in handy. Cossa, the Red Wings’ 2021 first-round draft pick (15th overall), might be busy this spring helping the Toledo Walleye have a long run in the East Coast Hockey League playoffs.
In the early going, it appears Cossa will be sharing the net with John Lethemon (Michigan State) for the Walleye, who grabbed a quick 2-0 first-round series lead over Indianapolis.
Cossa, 20, made 18 saves Friday in Toledo’s 4-1 victory. Lethemon stopped 34 shots the next night in a 4-2 win.
“Our team is real tight and hopefully we can power through this tough division,” Cossa said. “The road isn’t going to be easy, but we have a group that can do it. We’re just trying to take it one game at a time and not look too far into the future.”
That short-term mindset, not looking too far ahead, is what Cossa is also doing. Many Wings fans are already counting the days until Cossa is in net for Detroit and locking down the goaltending for the next decade.
But Cossa, though keeping a clear eye on the NHL, is in lockstep with the Wings organization in that he wants to make sure he’s ready when he gets there.
“I want to get there as soon as I am able, but I also know there’s a lot of work ahead of me — and I want to put that work in,” Cossa said. “I’m looking forward to it. Maybe one, two or three years, I honestly I can’t tell you (when he’ll be in the NHL). But there’s work ahead of me.”
Cossa was 26-16-4 with the Walleye during the regular season, with a 2.56 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in 46 games. He was named the ECHL goalie of the month for March, as he began what turned out to be a 10-game win streak (allowing two goals or fewer in eight of those wins) and Toledo put together a staggering 18-game win streak.
It’s been a tale of two seasons basically. Cossa, after Christmas, has been the goaltending prospect Wings fans envisioned.
“It starts with the team,” Cossa said of the turnaround this season. “We’ve tightened up a lot defensively. Guys started buying in and being accountable in the defensive zone, putting their bodies on the line and blocking shots. Then I had a couple (good) games and the confidence grew from there.”
The Wings had a decision to make out of September’s training camp and exhibition season regarding Cossa. Where do they place the 6-foot-6 goalie who had nothing more to prove in junior hockey, but placing him in Grand Rapids, and the American Hockey League, might be asking too much too soon?
Toledo, a Wings’ minor league affiliate a level below Grand Rapids, was just about right.
And as it worked out, things worked out perfectly. Cossa played well, while backstopping a real good team, but he also learned plenty about professional hockey, the struggles involved, and how to pull himself out of it.
“He struggled early in the season,” general manager Steve Yzerman said. “We decided to leave him in Toledo because we knew he was going get a lot of starts and it was going be a challenge for him.
“What I can really say is his attitude has been unreal. He relished the opportunity to go to Toledo and play a lot. He’s worked extremely hard, his determination has been excellent, and his play has continually improved throughout the course of the season.
“When we see him in Detroit? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine at this stage. But he has shown that he’s a good prospect, and as long as he’s going in the right direction, that’s all I’m worried about.”
When Cossa was ultimately assigned to Toledo, there was work to be done. Like, where is Toledo and what exactly was the ECHL?
“Nothing, absolutely nothing,” Cossa said of what he knew about the city or league.
It didn’t take long to realize Toledo was a hockey hotbed, and the ECHL was a darn good hockey league.
“It’s unbelievable,” Cossa said of Toledo’s passion for the Walleye. “Just crazy. We’ve had sellouts throughout the year, and they are such die-hard fans. I’ve had lines for about an hour just for autographs. It’s cool, it really is.
“As for the hockey, it’s a good league. The guys are bigger, the traffic is harder to see through (in net). These guys are pros and they’ve been doing this for a while. They know how to get in front of the net and they tip pucks a little better. The shots are better, they know where to shoot and know goalies more.
“Just the consistency through the lineup, there’s quite a bit of skill through the the first two lines. There are guys who can really rip it. Just getting ready for that, you learn a lot.”
Cossa had a brief stay in Grand Rapids while the Griffins were fighting through injuries, but the inexperience showed. In three games, Cossa was 1-1-0 with a 5.57 GAA and .783 save percentage.
“I had a good first game, then the last two were kind of tough and the stats don’t look too pretty,” Cossa said. “But it was a good experience and getting a taste of that level and seeing what I need to work on over the summer to succeed at that level.”
Cossa worked extensively this season with Phil Osaer (Wings head of goaltending scouting and development). The adjustments and tweaks definitely began to take hold around January, particularly playing angles better, using his size, and simply adjusting to pro hockey, improving his nutrition habits and being better conditioned.
There’s a lot more time to yourself in pro hockey, more responsibility involved. Cossa began to adapt as the schedule progressed.
“There’s been ups and down, and I was struggling a bit at the beginning,” Cossa said. “But since about Christmas I’ve been able to turn it around and the confidence has grown. On the ice I’m using my body. I’m a big guy and I’m using it to the max, and the positioning and the angles. I’m continuing to work on my skating and working through the traffic and controlling my crease.
“I just want to keep this going.”
Another interested observer of Cossa’s success in Toledo happens to be Wings coach Derek Lalonde. It’s in Toledo where Lalonde began to make his mark as a head coach, and where Lalonde still has some of his best memories in his career.
For Cossa to have success at the ECHL level bodes well, said Lalonde.
“It’s not an accident that a ton, most percentage of goalies in the NHL have spent time, even significant time, in the ECHL,” Lalonde said. “Sometimes the game is a little more chaotic. You’re dealing with rotating rosters. Sometimes you’re stuck on an overnight and you are playing with a depleted lineup. It can be a less organized game and the goalies down there actually are looking at tougher chances and percentages than they do at any (other) level.
“If he’s doing it over that period of time, no matter what the circumstance is, that speaks pretty well of how he’s playing. This is the vision the management team had for him and it’s going exactly to the script.”
For now, Cossa is concentrating on doing his part to help Toledo win a Kelly Cup, which the Walleye has yet to win (lost in five games in 2022 to Florida). If Cossa can do that, have a good summer and then progress next season, well, at least the NHL is in his vision.
The path is there.
“I’m just trying to continue to do well here and win hockey games,” Cossa said. “We want to win down here. We have the group. I want to do that and show them I am ready for the next level.”