BUFFALO, N.Y. – When the Buffalo Sabers came out, general manager Kevin Adams was unfazed by what he saw from goaltender Devon Levy. Levi has won five of his seven games for the Sabers since his collegiate career at Northeastern and has allowed three goals or fewer in five of those seven games.
While the traditional path for a goaltender is to spend time in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL, those seven games, along with Levi’s college body, convinced the Sabers that he could be different. At just 21 years old, he was about to get his chance to take the net for a team with playoff aspirations. He plays at the back of a progressive defense and shares the crane with two other goalkeepers, Eric Comrie and Uko-Peka Lukko.
“I want our players to be fearless and that’s how we run the organization,” Adams said in April. “Dhoni and myself, we will be fearless and believe in our players. When we think they are ready and we help them in the areas to be successful. For me, when I look at Devon, I see a special person, I see a special work ethic, a special talent.”
Few players have done what Levi is attempting. Goals past the AHL come from professional leagues like the KHL in Russia (Sergey Bobrovsky) or the SEL in Sweden (Henrik Lundqvist). Carter Hart, Jeremy Swayman and Spencer Knight are recent examples of goaltenders who finished with fewer than 20 AHL games. But Hart and Knight have had some ups and downs over the past few years. Knight is in the AHL after entering a player assistance program to deal with his OCD. Playing behind one of the NHL’s most consistent defenses in Boston, Swayman played nine AHL games before being called up to work with a formidable veteran in Tuukka Rask. Next season he was splitting the net with Linus Ullmark, another veteran who signed a free agent deal.
Levy, meanwhile, won’t be sharing the net with a proven veteran goaltender, and the Sabers allowed the fifth-most dangerous 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 on now. But Levi thinks this will to win will help him a lot.
“I think there’s going to be progress, you know?” Levi said. “It’s not a mindset. Attitude is winning. And if you go into this mindset every day, you will eventually grow.
Devon Levy said not today. 🙅♂️ pic.twitter.com/4qMnwJmLkm
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 11, 2023
Levi is 21 years old. Over the past 20 years, Hart, Steve Mason, Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury are the only goaltenders to play 40 or more games by age 21. If you expand that to goalkeepers who have played at least 30 games at that age, you only include Knight and Joonas Korpisalo. Levi will be 22 at the end of the season, so if you include goalies that age, you’ll include Matt Murray, Andrei Vasilevskiy, John Gibson, Sergej Bobrovsky, Michael Neuvirth, Rask, Ondrej Pavelec and Rick DiPietron. 40 games. Of that group, only Bobrovsky skipped the AHL.
Quick success is another question. Only two goaltenders have won the Calder Trophy in the past 20 years. Both goaltenders Steve Mason and Andrew Raycroft have played most of their careers in a different uniform than the one in which they won Rookie of the Year. In the year In 2003-04, Raycroft, the Boston Bruins’ next great net prospect, was bursting onto the scene. Due to a few injuries, he was thrust into the starting position at the age of 23 and developed. He also played over 100 AHL games. Raycroft, now a Bruins studio analyst for NESN in Boston and a former goaltending coach at the University of Connecticut, understands what Levy is going through.
“Out of the 30-game Hockey East schedule, the 82-game schedule is my biggest concern and the biggest is, ‘Let’s wait and see how it goes,'” Raycroft said by phone. , these guys handle the pressure well and work day in and day out. The mentality is different than before. But that’s what the physical damage of the NHL is and nothing can replicate that.
That has already become Levi’s question. He started the first four games of the season for the Sabres, then suffered a lower-body injury and missed more than two weeks. The injury came in a 4-3 loss to the Flames, when Levi wasn’t tracking down Puck or reacting quickly. After missing seven games, he returned to the Leafs and made 28 saves on 32 shots for the Sabers in a 6-4 win. Six days later he produced his best performance of the season in a 3–2 win over Durdu. But he allowed five goals on 18 shots in the next game and was pulled for the first time.
Brandon Carlo scores his first goal of the year! 🚨 pic.twitter.com/uIW9J3SZgX
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 15, 2023
“You really hope it responds well,” Granato said. “You do everything you can to help him in this. He’s got experience in all these situations. Unfortunately, they’re not good experiences. But you need to get experience. He’s competitive. He fights. He’s very intelligent about his position and himself. He reacts.”
Levi’s first two weeks taught him how important it is to keep his body fresh. He’s the type that likes to overwork and adjust things on the ice between games, but sometimes being sharp and rested is more important. He made adjustments to his routine and will carry that lesson with him for the rest of the season. That’s why Granato wanted Levi to feel the grind.
“Priorities are priorities,” Granato said before the Sabers’ third game of the season. “Devon has proven to this point that we’re in a position where we want to get him into a rhythm. That’s the priority right now. He hasn’t played that many games in the NHL and getting him into a rhythm will benefit him and us.”
Levi had played seven games in a two-week span when he joined the Sabers in the spring, but after a full college season, he was running into the playoffs, jumping on adrenaline. Levy said finishing his college years helped him hit the ground running last spring. Starting an 82-game season from scratch in the fall is a different challenge.
“Games happen fast,” Levy said. “You win one, you lose one. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is. You have something coming up fast. It’s just a matter of being able to stay off the mental and emotional roller coaster and put the past away and leave it at that.”
Levi’s adjustment to the NHL schedule will be the biggest question. Of the goaltenders who excelled in college and made the jump to the NHL, Knight and Swayman are the only ones to do so without spending much time in the AHL. Connor Hellebuyck had 88 AHL games after a dominant college career at UMass Lowell. Ryan Miller has played 172 AHL games after three stellar seasons at Michigan State. Jake Oettinger played three seasons at Boston University and earned more than 40 AHL games before entering the NHL. He played just 29 games in his first NHL season.
When Raycroft was drafted into the NHL net, he felt fortunate to have time in the AHL for a few reasons.
“The AHL allows you to wrestle and get out of your wrestle without putting too much value on it,” Raycroft said. “It’s the hardest thing in pro hockey. Devon Levy has never wrestled much in his life. He is going to fight. There is no way around it. Connor Bedard is going to fight. All these people struggle. What minors do will let you know how to get out of this. If you’re struggling, it lets you know where no one else cares. In the NHL, every game, every two points counts. There is no time for improvement in this situation. “
Raycroft also learned to play weak in young children.
“You play three-on-three and you’re on the bus from Providence to Hershey to Springfield on a 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’ve got to know how to play through the nights when you’re tired, and it’s hard to learn how to do that when you’re in the spotlight in the NHL and how your body reacts in different ways.
Levi found this in his fourth start. The injury allowed him time to catch his breath and regroup after the start of the season.
“I think the end result is good,” Granato said after Levi’s injury. “We want it to be more challenging for him. More challenge, more adversity to help him adapt faster and grow faster. So putting him in for four games was a little trick for us.
It never crossed Granato’s mind to send Lewin to the AHL for a conditioning period. The AHL doesn’t appear to be part of Buffalo’s Levi’s plan. For that part, the Sabers need Comrie or Luckkonen or both to step up and look like they can carry the load. Lukukon played well in places. Comrie did before the groin injury.
Levi’s confidence and preparation are part of the Sabers’ confidence in his ability to handle this transition. When asked, she does not hesitate to say that this is what is best for her development and is grateful that the Sabers gave her the opportunity.
But Levi never found the hole. The Sabers are 3-4 in seven starts. He has a 3.65 goals against average and .881 save percentage. According to Natural Stat Trick, his save percentage on high-danger shots ranks 55th out of 77 qualifying goaltenders. Granato said moving forward the goalie situation will be more of a rotation than it was at the start of the season. Part of that is the way Lukukkonen and Comrie played. But the plan is clear for Levi to work through his struggles in the NHL.
“You don’t want to be on the phone saying, ‘This guy is whatever and he’s going to push him,'” Raycroft said. “That can be detrimental. But nobody in the AHL spends that much time on forwards, defensemen or goaltenders. One is the salary cap. It forces you to have entry-level guys. There’s no way around it. You need them. Two, they’re better prepared. .
Raycroft remembers when he first got to the NHL, he was in survival mode. He did not want to go back to minors. Levi didn’t have to deal with that pressure. Otherwise, Raycroft said, Levi’s condition is harmless. If he plays well, Levi is the reason the Sabers can win. If he doesn’t, Buffalo’s run defense is a built-in excuse.
The question is, at what point does a no-lose situation become a no-win situation?
“It’s an unreal thing that nobody in pro sports knows and why it’s flipped and nobody really has an answer in a lot of men’s situations,” Raycroft said.
Raycroft was traded to the Bruins two years after that Calder Trophy-winning season. After the Calder win, the NHL had a lockout. Raycroft played in Finland and only got 30 games for Boston in his first season after his return. They sold him to Toronto Rask. After two seasons in Toronto, he played for three other teams.
Mike Condon, Levi’s goaltending coach at Northeastern, grew up in Boston and remembers thinking how quickly it all happened at Raycroft. When we spoke before Levy’s final season at Northeastern, Levy mentioned how positive it was to have another year of college to grow away from the spotlight.
“The prospect of being you doesn’t matter,” Condon continued. “You have two years. If that first year doesn’t go well, you’re really feeling the heat.
Lukkonen is feeling it now. He was a second-round pick and a top goaltender. He’s still only 24 and has just 51 NHL starts under his belt, but he’s gotten to the point where every opportunity feels important.
Teams tend to rotate quickly with goaltenders, and that’s one of the hardest spots for teams to spot. Bobrovsky had a great 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 most recently helped the Panthers reach the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago.
“Goalkeeping depends on where these guys are,” Raycroft said. “It cannot be denied.
This is where it becomes incumbent on the Sabers to make sure the situation around Levi is as good as possible. Many variables will determine whether he reaches his potential. He is arguably the best goaltender in hockey. Granato said it wasn’t a growth year for the team, but for Levi. It’s a balance many coaches need to strike.
This goes to the team’s patience. It’s what you expect from the organization and the right one,” Raycroft said.
The Sabers are off to an 8-9-1 start to the season, but even outside of the building, there’s no denying the belief that this should be a playoff team. Even with Comrie and Luukkonen playing well, Levi could be instrumental in determining whether the Sabers reach their goal.
“These guys feel like they need to grow in the game,” Raycroft said of the Sabres. “They are still growing, but they have to grow at a different level. Looks like Devon needs to get them there. And if it can grow and grow with the game, you cook it with gas.
(Photo: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)