The Buffalo Sabres’ struggles over the past decade can be attributed to numerous factors, but goaltending is what stands out most.
Since the controversial trade of cornerstone Ryan Miller in Feb. 2014, the Sabres have tried to find a new franchise goaltender. Robin Lehner, Carter Hutton, Linus Ullmark, and many others failed for one reason or another, and the team suffered as a result. This season, however, the Sabres have found a legitimate reason for hope.
Devon Levi and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen have both shown that they have what it takes to stabilize the Sabres’ rocky netminding. Both are still very young, but given the time to develop properly, Buffalo could have two franchise goaltenders on its hands, something that couldn’t bode better for the future.
Levi Lived Up to the Hype Upon Arrival
It’s remarkable how dramatically the perception of Levi’s has changed since he came to Buffalo. When the team acquired his rights from the Florida Panthers alongside a 2022 first-round pick in exchange for Sam Reinhart in July 2021, he was supposed to be a throw-in to make the trade more palatable for the Sabres. After all, the Panthers already had Spencer Knight, a 2019 first-round pick, in their pipeline and did not need Levi, drafted in the seventh round a year later.
But the truth is, Levi was the diamond in the rough that Florida passed over because Knight was more NHL-ready. Upon seeing his resumé, Sabres fans quickly learned he was anything but a throwaway. Levi has a lengthy list of accomplishments, highlighted by being named MVP and Best Goaltender at the 2021 World Junior Championship after helping Canada to the silver medal. The hype surrounding him grew when he joined the Northeastern University Huskies and set a team record for shutouts in a season halfway through his freshman year and won the Mike Richter Award. He captured the honor again in his sophomore campaign.
After completing his second collegiate season, Levi signed with the Sabres and made his highly-anticipated NHL debut this past month on March 31. He lived up to his billing, making 31 saves and earning a 3-2 overtime win over a stacked New York Rangers team. After Jeff Skinner scored the overtime winner, he and the team skated the length of the ice to embrace Levi.
He gave the Sabres a shot in the arm when they needed it the most. With the team fighting for a playoff spot in the final stretch of the season, he went on to start five of the next six games, earning three victories to help them stay in the running. Unfortunately, the youngster’s gallant efforts weren’t enough, and the Sabres were officially eliminated from the playoffs for a 12th consecutive year after Tuesday’s 6-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
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Though he could benefit from time in the American Hockey League, Levi could be in Buffalo to stay since the first season of his entry-level contract was exhausted. However, the 21-year-old will have his growing pains, like any other young player, and patience will be needed once the honeymoon ends. But if this season is anything to go on, the Panthers will regret trading him. Buffalo has spent nearly a decade looking for their next franchise goaltender, and he may have arrived at last.
Despite Inconsistency, Luukkonen Is Still the Guy
When Luukkonen was taken in the second round of the 2017 draft by the Sabres, it had been a few years since the organization had grown its own goaltending prospect, but they finally bucked the trend. While the franchise experienced failure after failure in goal, Luukkonen was allowed to take his time and slowly developed into a top prospect. In his first season in North America with the Sudbury Wolves, he led the Ontario Hockey League in wins, save percentage, and shutouts, and was awarded the Red Tillson Trophy as Player of the Year.
He made his highly-anticipated NHL debut in the spring of 2021 but didn’t get the chance to solidify himself in Buffalo until this season. His recall in November gave the Sabres the boost they needed after Eric Comrie struggled to begin the year, and they began to pick up ground in the standings. Despite having to learn on the fly, the 24-year-old has risen to the occasion, with a 17-11-4 record as of April 1. He’s had many standout performances along the way, most notably 40 saves in a thrilling 4-2 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche in December.
Although he’s arguably been the team’s most consistent netminder this season, he has also had to deal with growing pains, and he’s been very beatable at times, evidenced by his .892 save percentage. His inconsistent glove hand and sometimes-slow lateral movement have received particular criticism, and many fans have soured on him. However, it’s not entirely his fault.
Every netminder for Buffalo this season has had to deal with the Sabres’ incompetent defense and two-way play. The team is often caught out of position and gives up costly turnovers. And as a result, their goaltenders are frequently inundated with shots or sometimes left out to dry altogether. It’s unquestionably the biggest reason why they failed to make the postseason, and they need to find a solution needs over the summer to help their young goaltenders develop.
Though Luukkonen has had his struggles this year, his potential is undeniable. He’ll continue to grow as he gains experience, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t overcome his issues. It’s important to remember that, at 24, he’s only just completing his first full NHL season. If the Sabres can fix their defensive play, he could become as integral to the organization as Levi.
“The L’s” Could Be A Powerful Duo
It’s the era of the goaltending tandem in the NHL. Gone are the days of a No. 1 shouldering the majority of a team’s schedule with a backup relegated to sporadic appearances. In recent years, more and more teams have begun to split duties far more evenly, and the benefits have been proven — Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman for the Boston Bruins this season, for example.
Levi and Luukkonen have the potential to be just that for the Sabres. Yes, Levi has become the fan favorite, but he’ll need time to adjust fully at the professional level, especially if minor league time isn’t in the cards for him. Luukkonen, on the other hand, has served his time in AHL and doesn’t stand to benefit from getting sent back, making him the ideal person to hold down the fort until Levi is ready to take over. Both can learn from each other as well, as Levi could help Luukkonen with his reflexes while Luukkonen could help Levi with his rebound control.
However, no goaltender stands a chance without help from the players in front of them, and that has been on full display this season. If the Sabres can fix their defensive issues, their goaltending has the potential to skyrocket. Levi and Luukkonen could become names feared by opponents everywhere.