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Sabres notebook: Why Buffalo is eager to start Devon Levi off in the NHL


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Last week when the Dallas Stars were in Buffalo to play the Sabres, I stopped by Jake Oettinger’s locker after the Stars’ morning skate. Oettinger, 24, has quickly become one of the best goaltenders in hockey. He finished his college career at Boston University in 2019, played six AHL games to close out that season and then 38 AHL games the next season. In 2020-21, he grabbed a spot in the Stars’ net and, for the most part, hasn’t looked back.

He seemed an appropriate person to ask about the benefits of playing college hockey when developing as a goaltender. When I explained to him that I was asking because the Sabres had a top goalie prospect playing college hockey, Oettinger jumped in, eyes wide.

“Yeah, he’s a stud,” Oettinger said.

That’s the type of reputation Sabres prospect Devon Levi has gained in goalie and NHL circles over the last two dominant seasons at Northeastern. Hockey East coaches spent the last two years pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to beat the Montreal native who led the NCAA in save percentage for two straight seasons.

“He just gives us so much confidence,” Northeastern coach Jerry Keefe told The Athletic in September. “You just know when he’s back there you get off the bus knowing the best player on the ice is your goaltender. That’s a pretty big thing to have as a group.”

The Sabres are hoping Levi will give them that same boost before long. On Friday, the team signed Levi to a three-year, entry-level contract. General manager Kevyn Adams couldn’t contain his smile talking about it before the team’s game against the Flyers.

“It’s an exciting day for us,” Adams said. “Devon has been, as you guys all know, tremendous in his college career. He’s going to go down as one of the all-time great goaltenders, and we’re just excited to get him on board.”

Once he gets through the immigration process, Levi will report to Buffalo, where he’ll spend the remainder of the season with the Sabres. According to Puck Pedia, “Levi is the only player drafted outside of the first round in 2020 to receive max salary, signing bonus and close to max potential ‘A’ Performance Bonuses.” The deal and the timing of it meant he had to join the Sabres. He’s not eligible to play in the AHL playoffs, so he’ll get to spend the rest of the season with the NHL club. Adams didn’t commit to Levi playing games, but it’s on the table.

“I think it’s really important the mentorship that someone like Craig Anderson could have even in a short period of time,” Adams said. “I thought that was important to start Devon off on the right foot. And then we’ll go from there. We’ll take it day by day. We just thought for his development and where we are right now this was a critical time for him to learn and grow with us. That’s why he’s coming right in.”

Let’s circle back to Oettinger and his perspective for a second. He mentioned the extra time he got with his goalie coach, Brian Eklund, as the aspect of college hockey that was most helpful when he made his transition to the NHL.

“Every day we were on the ice just doing specific drills,” Oettinger said. “When I got to college I was pretty raw, so to be able to put that much time in and have the availability of ice and a coach as good as him, that made such a difference for me.”

There aren’t as many games in college hockey, so there’s more time during the week to hone your craft as a goalie and build fundamentals. That type of focused attention is harder to come by during the course of an NHL or even AHL season. That’s part of why Levi was wise to head back to college for a second full season as a starter. He worked closely with former pro goalie Mike Condon, Northeastern’s goalie coach, and got to feel the pressure of being the top goalie in college hockey without the pressure that comes with being a professional.

That feels even more important as Levi’s life starts to move quickly. This time last week he was preparing for a Hockey East quarterfinal game against Providence College. Now he’s going through the immigration process and will soon be skating with his NHL teammates. There remains a strong possibility that he will play games in Rochester next season, but from now until the end of the season, he’ll get a taste of NHL life.

“We first have to get him up to speed, get him around the guys, get him comfortable,” Adams said. “You always want to set — whether it’s a goaltender, a defenseman, forward — you want to set players up for success. You want to put them in a situation where you believe they can thrive. We’re open to it. We’ll take it day by day and once we believe he’s comfortable and where he needs to be, we’ll see where he’s at.”

The Sabres are starting to slip out of the playoff picture after a loss to the Flyers. That would seem to increase the odds that Levi will play games this season. Anderson, 41, has been playing on a limited workload this season. Eric Comrie is out with an injury that the team initially described as “week to week.” Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will continue to get starts, too, but there is room for Levi to play when he’s ready and the team is out of contention.

For now, though, the Sabres are glad to have him under contract. Adams gave Levi a few days to cool off after the end of his college season and then had a video call with Levi, his parents, his agents and other members of the Buffalo organization to make his pitch.

“Just talked about where we’re at philosophically, what we’re doing here, the vision, how he fits into all of this,” Adams said. “Obviously he liked what he heard and then we went from there. Devon is very thoughtful. He’s not an emotional guy. He takes things to heart and thinks about it. It took a few days to go through the process, but obviously, we got to where we got to today and it’s great news.”

Quick hits

1. The Sabres were fortunate to have the Levi news as a distraction from Friday’s on-ice result. Buffalo lost to Philadelphia 5-2, wrapping up a three-game road trip in disappointing fashion. Owen Tippett scored a hat trick for the Flyers, who took a 4-0 lead in the game before the Sabres got on the board. The Flyers had 60 percent of the high-danger chances and 57 percent of the expected goals at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick.

“We cracked a little bit, and it was unfortunate,” captain Kyle Okposo said.

The Sabres started this road trip with a comeback win against the Maple Leafs in Toronto. They then let a two-goal lead slip away against Washington and came away with only one point. Against an inferior Flyers team, the Sabres needed to take care of business and get two points.

“Tonight, a lot of the guys looked drained,” coach Don Granato said. “For us, there’s obvious pressure. We’re in a position that every point matters. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of pain to that. You have to learn to rise. I didn’t feel we did that well enough. This is a good position to be in for that reason because we need to develop that. That needs to be developed. That’s obvious. That’s something that’s developed through the league. Hardships have to make us better.”

2. Granato switched up the lineup for this game. After two games as a healthy scratch, Victor Olofsson was back in the lineup. Vinnie Hinostroza also rotated back in. To make room for those two, JJ Peterka and Tyson Jost came out. Granato’s reasoning was that he doesn’t want quality players to sit out for too long and get out of rhythm.

It’s easy to look at the result and point to the lines as a reason the team couldn’t find its game. Peterka and Jost were playing well before this game. Peterka, in particular, found a groove playing on the second line with Dylan Cozens and Jack Quinn. But Hinostroza and Olofsson weren’t Buffalo’s problem in this game. The Sabres out-chanced the Flyers 8-3 and had a 22-7 advantage in shot attempts with Hinostroza on the ice at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. Olofsson had the only two goals, though both came on the power play after the team had already fallen behind 4-0. The second goal came with four-tenths of a second remaining in the game.

The best version of Buffalo’s lineup is still probably the one with Peterka and Jost in it.

3. The Sabres aren’t mathematically eliminated, but losses like the one they had Friday don’t make it any easier to envision a path to the postseason. With 14 games remaining, the Sabres need to go on quite a run. Three of their next four games are against playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, so it doesn’t get easier.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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