BUFFALO, N.Y. — When the Buffalo Sabres were entering the offseason, general manager Kevyn Adams was unwavering in what he had seen from goalie Devon Levi. Levi won five of the seven games he played for the Sabres after the conclusion of his college career at Northeastern and he allowed three goals or fewer in five of those seven games, too.
While the traditional path for a goalie is to spend time in the AHL before jumping to the NHL, those seven games, along with Levi’s body of work in college, convinced the Sabres he could be different. At just 21 years old, he was going to get a chance to take the net for a team with playoff aspirations. He would play behind a work-in-progress defense and share the crease with two other unproven goalies, Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
“I want our players to be fearless and that’s how we’re going to run the organization, too,” Adams said in April. “Donny and myself, we are going to be fearless and we’re going to trust and believe in our players. When we think they’re ready and in spots to succeed we’re going to help them. For me looking at Devon, I see a special person, I see a special work ethic, a special talent”
Few players have done what Levi is attempting. Goalies who have skipped the AHL typically come from other professional leagues like the KHL in Russia (Sergei Bobrovsky) or SEL in Sweden (Henrik Lundqvist). Carter Hart, Jeremy Swayman and Spencer Knight are recent examples of goalies who ended up with fewer than 20 AHL games. But Hart and Knight have experienced some ups and downs the last few years. Knight is in the AHL after entering the player assistance program to deal with his OCD. Swayman played nine AHL games before getting called up to work in tandem with a formidable veteran in Tuukka Rask while playing behind one of the NHL’s most consistent defensive teams in Boston. The next season, he was splitting the net with Linus Ullmark, another veteran who signed a lucrative free agent deal.
Levi, meanwhile, doesn’t share the net with a proven veteran goalie and the Sabres allowed the fifth-most high-danger chances in the NHL last season. On top of that, the franchise has the longest playoff drought in professional sports and missed the playoffs by one point a season ago. The pressure to win is there now. But that need to win is what Levi thinks will help most.
“I think development just happens, you know?” Levi said. “It’s not a mindset. The mindset is to win. And if you go into every day with that mindset, you end up developing.”
Devon Levi said not today. 🙅♂️ pic.twitter.com/4qMnwJmLkm
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 11, 2023
Levi is 21 years old. In the last 20 years, Hart, Steve Mason, Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury are the only goalies to play 40 or more games in their age 21 season. If you expand that to goalies who played at least 30 games at that age, you only add Knight and Joonas Korpisalo. Levi will be 22 by the end of the season, so if you include goalies that age, you add Matt Murray, Andrei Vasilevskiy, John Gibson, Sergei Bobrovsky, Michael Neuvirth, Rask, Ondrej Pavelec and Rick Dipietro to the list of goalies who played 40 games. Of that group, only Bobrovsky skipped the AHL.
Immediate success is another question, too. In the last 20 years, only two goalies have won the Calder Trophy. Both of those goalies, Steve Mason and Andrew Raycroft, played the majority of their careers in a different uniform than the one in which they won rookie of the year. Back in 2003-04, Raycroft was bursting onto the scene as the Boston Bruins’ next great hope in net. Due to a few injuries, he got thrown into the starting position at age 23 and thrived. He’d also played more than 100 AHL games. Raycroft, who now works as a Bruins studio analyst for NESN in Boston and has been a goalie coach for the University of Connecticut, has insight into what Levi is facing.
“The 82-game schedule from a 30-game Hockey East schedule is my biggest concern and my biggest, ‘Let’s just wait to see how this goes’ statement,” Raycroft said by phone. “The talent and the mental side, these young goalies are so prepared now. Devon Levi, Swayman, Jake Oettinger, these guys handle pressure so well and they work day to day. The mindset is so different than what it used to be. But the physical toll of the NHL is what it is and there’s nothing that can replicate that.”
That’s already become a question with Levi. He started the first four games of the season for the Sabres and then had a lower-body injury and missed more than two weeks. The injury occurred in a 4-3 loss against the Flames in which Levi wasn’t as sharp tracking the puck or as quick in his reactions. He returned against the Leafs after missing seven games and made 28 saves on 32 shots in a 6-4 win for the Sabres. He followed that up with his best performance of the season six days later in a 3-2 win against the Wild. But in his next appearance, he allowed five goals on 18 shots and was pulled for the first time.
Brandon Carlo gets his first goal of the year! 🚨 pic.twitter.com/uIW9J3SZgX
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 15, 2023
“Obviously, you hope he responds well,” Granato said. “You do what you can to help him through this. All of these situations are gained experience. Unfortunately, not good experiences. But experience you need to gain. He’s competitive. He battles. He’s very intelligent about the position and about himself as well. He’ll respond.”
Levi said the first two weeks taught him how important it is to keep his body fresh. He’s the type to want to overwork and correct things on the ice between games, but it’s sometimes more valuable to be sharp and rested. He’s made adjustments to his daily routines and will be carrying that lesson for the rest of the season. That’s part of why Granato wanted Levi to feel the grind.
“Priorities are priorities,” Granato said before the Sabres’ third game of the season. “Devon has, to this point, established himself that we are in a position where we want to get him into a rhythm. That is a priority right now. He has not had as many games in the NHL and to get him in that rhythm would benefit him and us.”
Levi played seven games in a two-week stretch when he joined the Sabres in the spring, but he was running on adrenaline jumping into a playoff race after a full college season. Levi said having just wrapped up his college season helped him hit the ground running last spring. Starting from scratch in the fall with an 82-game season is a different challenge.
“Games happen fast,” Levi said. “You win one, you lose one. It doesn’t really matter what the score is. You have something coming up pretty quick. Just being able to stay off the mental and emotional roller coaster and put it in the past and leave it there.”
Levi’s adjustment to the NHL schedule will be the biggest question. Among goalies who have been college standouts and jumped into the NHL, Knight and Swayman are the only ones who did so without much time in the AHL. Connor Hellebuyck had 88 AHL games after a dominant college career at UMass Lowell. Ryan Miller played 172 AHL games after three standout seasons at Michigan State. Jake Oettinger played three seasons at Boston University and then got more than 40 AHL games before jumping into the NHL. He played only 29 games in his first NHL season.
When Raycroft got thrown into the NHL net, he felt fortunate to have the time in the AHL for a few reasons.
“The AHL allows you to struggle and figure a way out of your struggle without extremely high expectations,” Raycroft said. “That’s the hardest thing in pro hockey. Devon Levi hasn’t struggled very much in his life. He’s going to struggle. There’s no way around it. Connor Bedard is going to struggle. All of these guys struggle. What the minors do is allow you to figure out how you get out of that. It allows you to figure it out in a place where no one is really worried about it if you are struggling. In the NHL, every game, every two points counts. There’s no time to get better at that.”
Raycroft also learned to play tired in the minors.
“You play those three in three and you’re on the bus from Providence to Hershey to Springfield on Sunday afternoon,” Raycroft said. “That stretch in the NHL, there’s more rest and you get better food, but the pace is higher. So you have to figure out how to play nights tired and it’s harder to do when you’re in that spotlight in NHL to learn how to do that and how your body reacts in different ways.”
Levi found that out in his fourth start. The injury allowed him time to take a breather and regroup after a hectic start to the season.
“I think the end result is great,” Granato said after Levi got hurt. “We wanted to get him more challenge. Greater challenge, greater adversity is going to help him acclimate faster and grow him faster. So thrusting him in for four games, that was a bit of a method for us.”
It never crossed Granato’s mind to send Levi to the AHL for a conditioning stint. The AHL hasn’t seemed to be a part of Buffalo’s plan for Levi at all. Part of that is the Sabres would need Comrie or Luukkonen or both to step up and look capable of carrying the load. Luukkonen has played well in spots. Comrie did, too, before a groin injury kept him out multiple weeks.
Levi’s confidence and preparation are part of why the Sabres trust his ability to handle this transition. When asked, he doesn’t hesitate to say this is what’s best for his development and he’s grateful the Sabres have given him the opportunity.
Levi, however, hasn’t found his groove. The Sabres are 3-4 in his seven starts. He has a 3.65 goals-against average and an .881 save percentage. His save percentage on high-danger shots ranks 55th of 77 qualifying goalies, according to Natural Stat Trick. Granato said that moving forward, the goalie situation will be more of a rotation than it was at the beginning of the season. Part of that is the way Luukkonen and Comrie have played. But it’s clear the plan is for Levi to work through his struggles in the NHL.
“You don’t want to get hung up on, ‘This is the guy no matter what and he’s going to push through it,’” Raycroft said. “That can be detrimental. But nobody is spending as much time in the AHL whether it’s forwards, defensemen or goalies. One is because of the salary cap. It forces you to have entry-level guys. There’s no way around it. You need them. Two, they are just better prepared.”
Raycroft remembers when he first got to the NHL, he was in survival mode. He didn’t want to get sent back down to the minors. Levi hasn’t had to deal with that pressure. In a sense, Raycroft noted, Levi’s situation is no-lose. If he plays well, Levi is the reason the Sabres are winning. If he doesn’t, Buffalo’s work-in-progress defense is a built-in excuse.
The question becomes at what point does a no-lose situation become a no-win situation?
“That’s the intangible that nobody really knows in pro sports and why it flips and nobody really has an answer in a lot of guys’ situations,” Raycroft said.
Raycroft got traded by the Bruins two years after that Calder Trophy-winning season. Right after he won the Calder, the NHL had a lockout. Raycroft played in Finland and the first season after he came back, he only got 30 starts for Boston. They traded him to Toronto for Rask. He ended up playing for three other teams after two seasons in Toronto.
Mike Condon, who was Levi’s goalie coach at Northeastern, grew up in Boston and remembers thinking how quickly that all happened to Raycroft. When we spoke before Levi’s final season at Northeastern, he mentioned how much of a positive it was that Levi would get another year in college to develop away from the spotlight.
“It doesn’t really matter the prospect you are,” Condon said then. “You have two years. If that first year doesn’t go so well, then you’re really feeling the heat.
Luukkonen is feeling that right now. He was a second-round pick and a top goalie prospect. He’s still only 24 and has only 51 NHL starts under his belt but he’s reached a point where every opportunity feels essential.
Teams tend to pivot quickly with goalies, and it’s one of the tougher positions for teams to figure out. Bobrovsky had a terrific rookie season for the Flyers and was traded less than two years after his NHL debut. He then won two Vezina trophies with the Blue Jackets and more recently helped carry the Panthers to an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.
“Goaltending is so reliant on the situation these guys are in,” Raycroft said. “It can’t be overstated.”
That’s where it’s incumbent on the Sabres to make sure the situation around Levi is as good as it possibly can be. A lot of variables will determine whether he reaches his potential. He’s arguably the best goalie prospect in hockey. Granato has said it’s not a development year for the team, but it is for Levi. That’s a balance many coaches need to strike.
“That goes to the patience of the team. It’s down to the organization and what their real expectation is,” Raycroft said.
The Sabres started the season 8-9-1, but there’s no denying the belief in and outside the building that this should be a playoff team. Even with Comrie and Luukkonen playing well, Levi can have a major part in determining whether the Sabres reach that goal.
“It feels like these guys need to develop in the playoffs,” Raycroft said of the Sabres. “They’re still developing but they need to develop at a different level. It feels like Devon needs to get them to that spot. And if he can develop and develop in the playoffs, then you’re cooking with gas.”
(Photo: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)