What to expect from Devon Levi: Why the Sabers should be patient
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Devon Levi joins the Buffalo Sabers with no shortage of expectations. And he’s accumulated the material to justify the hype. But will he be up to it?
On March 17, after completing his second season in the NCAA at Northeastern University, the Sabers signed Levi to a three-year contract. And with 13 games left in Buffalo’s 2022-23 season, the 21-year-old goaltender from Dollard-des-Ormeaux, PQ is likely to make his NHL debut.
How will he get out of this? That remains to be seen. But what I can tell you is that the Sabers now have a special contracted prospect. One that – oddly enough – came via trade to the Florida Panthers in July 2021. Levi was acquired with a first-round pick in exchange for forward Sam Reinhart.
Clearly, Buffalo believes in Levi. And they should. He has been an outstanding goaltender since U18 AAA hockey. Levi posted a .941 save percentage in his only year of junior hockey with the CCHL’s Carleton Place Canadiens. Then supported him by leading the NCAA Div. I’ve been playing save percentage hockey for two straight seasons.
Levi was the NCAA’s top goaltender in the 2021-22 season, winning the Mike Richter Award. He is the heavy favorite to win it again this year. Levi led Northeastern to a Beanpot Tournament championship in 2023 and has a good chance of winning the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the NCAA’s most valuable player.
I could go on and on with Levi’s accomplishments. He was an Olympian for Canada in 2022 and competed at the 2021 World Junior Championships. There is no doubt that Levi’s bedroom is a sanctuary of excellence, decorated with countless awards and trophies.
And while those past experiences are incredibly valuable, Levi is entering a new chapter that’s bound to be a bigger challenge than anything he’s ever faced. Jumping straight to the NHL from NCAA hockey is no easy feat.
So what does it do well? What can Levi do better? I have a few thoughts.
First of all, Levi is only six feet tall. In the NHL, it’s undersized. And that’s probably one of the main reasons Levi was selected so late in the 2020 NHL Draft. He went 212th overall on lap seven. Thus, its (lack of) size is immediately noticeable.
But Levi is not small. Nashville Predators standout goaltender Juuse Saros is just 5-foot-11 and has no problem shooting. There’s still room for six-foot goaltenders in the NHL.
Saros is an amazing skater. And I see that with Levi. His thrusts are powerful and his saves are crisp. Levi’s skating routes are very precise – much like those of Saros. For little goalies, getting the right angle is of paramount importance. And that only happens through disciplined skating.
Levi’s diligence at the corner shows where he tends to give up goals. As you can see in the chart below, it is very balanced. Levi is not vulnerable to blocker or gauntlet side.
For me, there are two key elements. First, Levi rarely ventures outside of the blue paint unless he knows the shooter is on his own. He prefers to stay close to home. This means Levi is never far from the center line of being square.
The other key aspect is how Levi spins. It spins before it pushes – a key to getting square. He constantly puts his torso – a goalkeeper’s biggest blocking surface – in front of the shot. Levi’s arms and legs are most often equidistant from the shooter’s blade. It’s simple geometry. Levi’s efficient spins allow him to triangulate the puck.
I also like that Levi is really good at going to his post and getting into a good lineup. He is not lazy after the first shot attempt. It rises on its edges and pushes to the next destination in a timely manner. The posts are a goalie’s home base, and even some NHL goalies lack the urgency to get there.
It’s not Levi. He is dynamic, explosive and has energy to spare. By arriving at his posts early, it allows him to pace the scene. He uses shoulder controls well to identify threats in front of him.
Another byproduct of Levi’s sharp movements is that it gives him time to track the puck. It’s something he does very well and sometimes reminds me of New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin. Both keepers make the game look easy on clean shots because they know what’s coming and have plenty of time to react.
However, there is a difference between Levi and Shesterkin. The Rangers keeper tends to play straighter than Levi. And that’s something to watch out for.
At the NCAA level, especially on a team like Northeastern that doesn’t allow a lot of chances against side players, Levi could take a wide stance. He played behind a predictable and effective northeast defense that allowed him to focus on the shooter.
That won’t be the case with the Sabers, a team that has yet to figure out how to defend. The odds against are up in Buffalo. Strange man runs happen far too often, and the passes fall through Buffalo’s seams. If Levi got his first NHL start this season, he’d face the fastest offense he’s ever seen while keeping goal behind the worst defense he’s played behind in years. Maybe never.
Levi’s wide stance and lack of height are of slight concern. No matter how well it tracks the pucks, the visual space available to NHL shooters will be appealing. And its width will be inconvenient to move from side to side. The lower a goalie’s position is, the more locked in position they become.
Sometimes Levi gets stuck reacting to quick plays by rushing rather than pushing, and that’s directly attributable to his wide stance. But Levi could get away with it at the NCAA level due to his natural flexibility and exceptional body control. He doesn’t spend much time on his stomach or on his back. Levi gives himself a chance to make the most saves.
I’m also curious to see how Levi handles traffic on a professional level. When the game is at range, he prefers to stay straight in his position. But once he loses sight of the puck, Levi tends to widen out and try to look around traffic rather than over it.
It’s a byproduct of its small size. But traffic is something he will have to adapt to on a professional level. The players are bigger than college and the traffic moves fast. Levi won’t be able to peek around bodies as effectively as he did at Northeastern.
My final area of concern is puck handling. Levi isn’t afraid to step out of the net and play. But it is very one-dimensional. Levi plays most of the pucks on his forehand side. And he tends to get caught with his head down.
From a distance, it looks like Levi knows he has to handle the puck. But he will never be totally comfortable doing it. He can be indecisive, which leads to reversals. NHL teams will check Levi with a goal.
After watching Levi for the past few years, there’s no doubt in my mind that he has a special talent. I think he’s going to be an NHL goaltender. And a very good one too.
But keep in mind there will be a learning curve for Levi. Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger came from Boston University with similar hype, but it took more than 50 games of AHL experience before he was ready to play the No. 1 at the NHL level.
Carter Hart started in the AHL before moving – perhaps early in my eyes – to the Philadelphia Flyers. And Carey Price won a Calder Cup with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs before playing with the Montreal Canadiens. Patience matters with goalies.
Spencer Knight of the Florida Panthers might be the closest comparable to Levi. After two monster seasons at Boston College, he immediately jumped into the NHL after finishing his sophomore year.
Knight looked amazing in his first six NHL games at the end of the 2021 season, including two appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But reality hit hard the following season, and Knight was sent to the AHL to retool.
I think Knight is the perfect example of a rushing goalie. He needed time in the AHL early in his professional career, but he didn’t get it until he had a tough time in the NHL. The process was backwards. And he’s still trying to find his calling as an NHL goaltender.
I hope the Sabers are willing to be patient with Levi. And I hope they have a plan in case things go wrong. Maybe Levi starts out in the NHL and never looks back. He has the talent to do it.
But Buffalo has to get it right with Levi. He’s the top goalie prospect to come out of NCAA hockey since Ryan Miller, who won the 2000-01 Hobey Baker Memorial Award in his freshman year and signed with the Sabers shortly thereafter.
Miller played three full seasons — including the 2004-05 NHL lockout year — in the AHL before joining Buffalo’s roster full-time.
I don’t think Levi will need that long to adjust to the NHL. He is a cerebral goalkeeper who has been able to adapt very quickly to different leagues and circumstances. Levi’s game has been consistent as it is rooted in technique and restraint. There is a self-awareness in his game that breeds confidence among his teammates.
Perhaps more importantly, Levi has experience in pressure situations. The Beanpot is big business in college hockey, and Levi shone for Northeastern in this year’s tournament. He won a silver medal at the Junior World Championships and competed in the Olympics.
I saw Levi perform and succeed on big stages before his NHL debut. And I think that over time, he will be able to reproduce it. Just be patient.