Recently, the Buffalo Sabres have been regarded as having one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL. Within their prospects, they currently have four goalies competing for a spot in Buffalo that has long been one of the team’s most inconsistent positions. With the roster spots currently being held by 41-year-old Craig Anderson and Eric Comrie on a two-year deal, the potential for these young goalies to see NHL ice as soon as this season is a fair bet.
Drafted by Buffalo in the second round of the 2017 Entry Draft, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has long been dubbed the “goalie of the future” for the Sabres. The 6-foot-4 goalie from Finland has received significant ice time in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Sabres’ affiliate, the Rochester Americans. While dealing with some concerns related to injuries, Luukkonen has had some streaky performances in the AHL, struggling to maintain a save percentage (SV%) near .900.
However, despite having a very limited sample size, Luukkonen has performed well when given a chance in the NHL. He played four games with the Sabres in the 2020-21 season, ending with a 1-3-0 record but had a .906 SV%. In the 2021-22 season, he played nine games for the Sabres, ending with a 2-5-2 record and a higher SV% of .917.
Luukonen started the 2022-23 season in Rochester, and through nine games, he holds a record of 6-3-0. Recently, he’s had a string of impressive games, establishing a season-high 37 saves in a 5-3 win over the Utica Comets on Nov. 4 and 34 saves in a 3-1 win over the Syracuse Crunch on Nov. 9. If he receives more ice time in the NHL with a better defensive core in front of him, he could very well be the goalie of the future that Buffalo needs. However, he has some increased internal competition.
Drafted by the Sabres in Round 3 of the 2019 NHL Draft, Erik Portillo currently plays for the University of Michigan. He elected to return to Michigan for his junior year rather than sign with the Sabres. In the NCAA, he’s put up good, consistent numbers on a Michigan team full of talent. Recently, he made 40 saves in a 6-5 overtime win over Western Michigan on Oct. 29. Portillo was out with an illness when Michigan traveled to Penn State last week, marking the end of a 50-game starting streak.
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Portillo has performed incredibly well in the NCAA; the only uncertainty is when, or if, he’ll sign with Buffalo. Before going back to Michigan for his junior year, he received high praise for his academic success, including a business built by him and his classmates (from ‘Sabres prospect Erik Portillo built a business while leading Michigan to Frozen Four,’ The Buffalo News, 4/6/22). It wouldn’t be surprising if he returned to school for his senior year in order to get his degree.
Acquired in the trade of Sam Reinhart to the Florida Panthers, Levi had a historic 2021-22 season while playing NCAA hockey for Northeastern University. In his freshman season, he received multiple awards for his performance, including the National Rookie of the Year Award, the Mike Richter Award for best college goaltender, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. He had a total of 10 shutouts last season, giving him the most in Hockey East, and was tied for second nationally. He also made the roster for Team Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Like Portillo, Levi opted to return to Northeastern for his sophomore year. So far, he seems to be following similar trends to last season. With a 6-1-2 record, he recorded 49 saves in a 1-2 loss to Providence on Oct. 15, and his goals-against average (GAA) has not been over 1.98 through the first nine games.
Levi appears to be a favorite for the Sabres and their fans. He receives weekly check-ins from Sabres goalie development coach Seamus Kotyk, and he spoke fondly of his experiences in Buffalo during the Sabres’ development camp over the summer (from ‘Sabres goalie prospect Devon Levi hoping patient approach to development at Northeastern pays off’ The Athletic, 11/10/22).
The newest goalie prospect in the Sabres’ system is 2022 second-round draft pick, Topias Leinonen. At 18 years old, Leinonen has played seven games this season with the JYP U20 team. He’s performing incredibly well at this level, holding a 6-1-0 record and a .943 SV%. He’s also been given a look in Liiga, where, through eight games, he has a 1-5-1 record and a .841 SV%.
Prior to the 2022 draft, Leinonen was ranked as the best European goaltender available. His scouting report also gave much attention to his size, clocking in at 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds.
As Leinonen is the youngest goalie prospect in the system, it will likely be a few years before Sabres fans are able to see his full potential. The Sabres having spent a second-round pick on him leads us to believe that they see a future for him in Buffalo, and fans will hopefully see him in North America soon enough.
Waiting Game for Sabres and Their Fans
Given the Sabres’ current situation, Luukkonen would be the first to see more NHL time should Anderson or Comrie get injured or start greatly underperforming. We won’t know what the future holds until the NCAA season ends for Portillo and Levi, with the potential there to see both of them for a couple of games at the end of the regular season. While Leinonen is young enough that he may not see much of Buffalo for another few years, general Manager Kevyn Adams has placed importance on patience and letting young players develop. The goalies in his pipeline provide the opportunity for great success one day, as they’ve all shown promise so far.
Hello! I’m a third-year journalism student at Kennesaw State University. I’ve been a fan of the Buffalo Sabres my whole life, and I am super excited to have the opportunity to cover them for The Hockey Writers. Most of the time you can find me on Twitter @skinnerskating or @buckfelderbrie, where I yell about the Sabres, Bills, and anything else happening in my life.