Sabres’ Goaltending Future Bright with Devon Levi

The Buffalo Sabres’ future goaltender has been in question for some time now, as they haven’t had a long-term starting goaltender since Ryan Miller left the organization some time ago. Over the years, the Sabres began to build up a pipeline of young goaltenders, including the likes of Eric Comrie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Erik Portillo, and most notably, Devon Levi. The question is, is Levi the next man in line to be the Sabres’ starting netminder?

Looking at Devon Levi

Levi was acquired from Florida in the 2021 offseason as part of the deal that sent Sam Reinhart to the Panthers (from ‘Sabres trade Sam Reinhart to Panthers for goalie Devon Levi and a first-round pick’, Buffalo News, 7/30/21). The Panthers considered him to be an expendable asset, as they believe that they have their future netminder in Spencer Knight.

Levi began to make a name for himself at the 2020 World Junior Championship (WJC), where he went 6-1, posting a .964 save percentage (SV%). He also had three shutouts in only seven games. Sadly, the one loss was in the gold medal game. But he had made a name for himself, although falling just short to team USA and Spencer Knight.

Even though he lost, Levi took home the following awards: U20 WJC Best Goaltender, U20 WJC Best SV% and Best goals against average (GAA), U20 WJC All-Star Team, U20 WJC Top 3 Player on Team, and U20 WJC Silver Medal. Quite a long list of awards for a goaltender that didn’t even win the tournament.

It was that same season (2020-21) that Levi joined Northeastern University in the NCAA. Although he played no games, he set himself up to be the starting goaltender the following season (2021-22). He started impressing scouts and fans around the league when he had arguably the best NCAA season out of a goaltender since Ryan Miller 20-plus years ago, posting a .952 SV%, 10 shutouts, and 1.54 GAA in 32 games.

Devon Levi Northeastern Huskies
Devon Levi, Northeastern Huskies (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

This means that Levi posted a shutout nearly one in every three games he played. He won NCAA Hockey East Player of the week and NCAA Hockey East Rookie of the Month multiple times. He won the Mike Ritcher Award (Top Collegiate Goaltender), Tim Taylor Award (Top Collegiate Rookie), and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award (Top Collegiate Player), which many fans would say he should have won.

Notably, Levi also joined team Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics, although head coach Claude Julien didn’t play him in any games. The young goaltender surely gained some valuable experience, though, and was also able to bond with future Sabres teammate Owen Power.

Levi will be returning to Northeastern University for the 2022-23 season. He mentioned in a recent interview that he has no problem at all taking the longer path to get where he wants to be and talked about how he spent three years in Midget and still made his way up to the NCAA, and hopefully, someday, the NHL.

Internal Competition

With the recent signing of Eric Comrie, Buffalo’s depth chart in net has quickly become quite strong. Including Levi, there are now four goaltenders that are hoping to become Buffalo’s starting goaltender at some point.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was, at one point in time, the consensus goaltender of the future for Buffalo. The hype surrounding Luukkonen began following his fantastic 2018-19 season. In 53 games with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL, he posted a .920 SV% and an astounding 38-11-4 record and also played for the Finnish World Junior Championships team in 2018-19. In the miraculous gold-medal run with the Finns, he posted a .932 SV% and a 1.80 GAA. He finished the season having won OHL goaltender of the year, being named a first-team OHL all-star, and being named to the U20 WJC All-Star team.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Buffalo Sabres
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Sadly, things have gone downhill since then for Luukkonen, as his numbers have taken a huge hit with Rochester. His most promising stat since 2019-20 has been a .917 SV% over nine games with the Sabres. Apart from that, it’s been fairly bleak for him. At this point, the Sabres are still holding out hope that Luukkonen can develop into a starting goaltender at the NHL level, but I don’t think he can be an elite goaltender at the NHL level.

Erik Portillo

Portillo finds himself in an interesting situation here in Buffalo. With the recent addition of Comrie, it’s going to be very tough for Portillo to crack a Sabres roster spot any time soon.

By no means does this mean Portillo is the worst of the four young goaltenders in Buffalo, though. He put up fantastic numbers in the NCAA this past season with the University of Michigan and is committed to returning to Michigan again next season (from ‘Michigan hockey holds onto goalie Erik Portillo for next season’, Detroit Free Press, 4/09/22).

Eric Comrie

Comrie is a great backup goaltender and could even break out into an NHL starter this season. Last season, Comrie played only 19 games as Connor Hellebuyck’s backup. In the small sample, Comrie was stellar. He was second in GSAx/60 (goals saved above expected per 60 minutes) and led the league in 5-on-5 SV% among goaltenders with over 15 games played; he posted a .920 SV% to go along with these impressive stats.

Eric Comrie Winnipeg Jets
Eric Comrie, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

My prediction is that Comrie will breakout this season and blossom into a starting caliber goaltender for the Sabres. Keep in mind, though, that while those stats are incredibly promising, it’s a very small sample, and we shouldn’t jump the gun just yet on Comrie being the guy in the Sabres’ net long term.

What Does Devon Levi Think About This?

Levi isn’t worried about his internal competitors at all. Here’s what he had to say when asked if he worries about his competition: “Not really, honestly. I’m just focusing on myself. I know if I do my job and I do it to the best of my abilities and I’m the best version of myself, I know I’m going to play, so I’m just focusing on myself… There’s no negative energy at all, it’s just friendly competition. We both (Erik Portillo and Devon Levi) want to get better. At the end of the day, I want what’s best for the organization, too.”

How Does Levi Project at the NHL Level?

It’s very clear to me that Levi has the potential to be a star in the NHL. One of the biggest questions for him now is how is he going to follow up that incredible season with Northeastern University? He had this to say when being asked about the pressure of following up his stellar year:

I struggled a little bit at first, trying to manage it and it’s like you try to put so much pressure on yourself to be able to do it again, but this year going in I’m going to treat it like like it’s last year. I still have a lot to prove, and I still have a lot to give.

– Devon Levi addressing the media at Sabres Development Camp 7/14/22

I truly do believe that Levi is the best goaltender in the Sabres organization. He has dominated at every level he’s played, including the World Juniors and NCAA. My projection for him would be a Vezina-caliber goaltender. There’s no doubt that he’ll get his shot to take on the starting mantle for the Sabres sometime down the road, and when he does, he’s going to be an incredible puck-stopper.

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