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Why Juuse Saros is among many with ‘high expectations’ for Sabres goalie Devon Levi


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On Tuesday morning, the Nashville Predators were holding their morning skate when Sabres goalie Devon Levi walked into the stands and took a seat. He picked a spot at the end of the ice on which Predators goalie Juuse Saros was working with Nashville’s power play. Levi’s eyes were fixated on the crease, where Saros, the NHL’s shortest starting goalie, was efficiently preparing for that night’s start.

The two met at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville this fall when Levi and Northeastern were in town to play a game that was eventually relocated because a pipe burst at the arena. But the Huskies were at the arena the same time as the Predators, and Levi saw Saros in the hallway. 

“I was like, ‘I’ve got to go say hi to him,’” Levi said. “I just went up and introduced myself. It was cool. He knew who I was and he was asking me about my gear, I was asking about his gear. Really, really nice guy and he’s a guy that I’ve looked up to and watched for a while now so it was cool meeting him and getting to know him personally.” 

Added Saros: “There’s a similar language with goalies always.”

What Levi didn’t know is that Saros has been studying him, too. Since that meeting, Saros has pulled up clips of Levi’s games and studied how he plays. 

“He’s really impressed me,” Saros said. “I really like his game. I have high expectations. I think he’s going to be a great goalie in this league. Just all of his movements and how he reads the game. He’s really precise in everything that he does. He’s great technique-wise. He’s one of those goalies that I really like to watch. I can learn from him, too, watching his game. He has a really solid, all-around game.”

Levi was sitting in the Sabres’ locker room after his first team skate on Friday and when he learned that Saros had been watching him closely, his eyes got wide. 

“Really?!” Levi said. “No way! That’s so cool!” 

Saros is someone Levi has admired for a while. He rose from being a fourth-round pick to a Vezina finalist and did so as the shortest goalie in the NHL. Listening to Levi talk about Saros, his enthusiasm for the details of the position is obvious.

“The little things that he does are a lot of the little things that I try to focus on, too,” Levi said. “I feel like our games are pretty similar. He’s just unbelievable at doing what he does. He’s so consistent. He’s like a robot. Every time it’s just bang, bang, bang. I like to watch how he moves, how he’s always square and just gets hit by the puck, always in position and he’s fast. He has great edge work. I love watching him. It’s pretty cool that he watched me, too. I didn’t realize.” 

It makes sense for Levi and Saros to spend time studying one another because both are shorter than the prototype for the position. Saros stands 5-foot-11, while Levi is listed at 6-feet tall. If anyone is proof that height doesn’t need to be a barrier to success for Levi, it’s Saros. He has been an All-Star each of the last two seasons.

“Obviously it helps if you’re a bigger guy, but I’ve never been a bigger guy,” Saros said. “So I haven’t really thought about it too much. I just have to be able to be precise on the movements and position and stuff like that because you can’t really give up more space.”

Levi has dealt with questions about his height for most of his career. It’s one of the reasons he fell to the seventh round of the NHL Draft in 2020. But it also hasn’t deterred him from becoming one of the best goalie prospects in hockey over the last two seasons. Levi seems to bristle at any mention of his height. To him, it’s not complicated how he’s managed to succeed without the 6-foot-4 frame so many teams are looking for from their draft picks.

“You’ve got to just go out there and keep the puck out of the net,” Levi said this week. “And there’s so many different ways to do it, there’s so many guys that did it differently. Just at the end of the day, it’s just whether it crossed the line or not and just keeping it out. I feel like I was born to do this and it’s my passion. I go out every day with the will to stop the guy that’s coming down on me. It’s the most fun thing in the world for me. I’m still growing, still getting better, still finding better ways to play and improve my game and I’m just really excited to be facing the best of the best. I know it’s going to push my game further and I’m excited for that.”

Sabres goalie coach Mike Bales has seen the position evolve in almost a decade as an NHL goalie coach. He said he thinks, “the size factor is a little bit overblown.” Bigger goalies cover more net and can sometimes cover more ice on scramble plays in front, but it’s not the only way to play the position.

“Smaller guys have to be a little more precise,” Bales said. “Obviously you have to be an excellent skater. They’re usually pretty good play readers as opposed to some of the bigger guys that can just kind of block and cover net.”

Levi checks all of those boxes. Now the Sabres are just waiting to get him into practice to see how he stacks up to the NHL speed. As of Thursday, Levi was still waiting for his immigration paperwork to be finalized, so he couldn’t participate in the team practice. But he was able to get on the ice for some individual work afterward. Bales was out there along with some Sabres players who hung around to shoot on Levi.

By Friday, Levi was cleared and able to participate in the team’s morning skate ahead of the game against the Devils. He’ll get game action at some point in Buffalo’s final 12 games, but the Sabres aren’t going to rush him. He’s adjusting to the speed of the game, getting all of his equipment situated and figuring out the routine of being an NHL player. 

“When he has an opportunity to play, you want to put him in the best position possible,” Bales said. 

When Levi does play, that will serve as a baseline evaluation for the team to determine the next step in Levi’s development. The likely scenario is that he’ll play next season in the AHL. A few goalies have bucked that trend in recent years, but it’s not common. The path for goalies tends to be slower.

Only two goalies from the 2017 NHL Draft have played at least 50 games. No goalie from the 2018 draft has played in 30 NHL games. Spencer Knight is the only goalie drafted in 2019 to have played more than 30 games. And Levi’s draft class, 2020, has only one goalie, New Jersey’s Nico Daws, who has played more than one game.

Saros played 62 games in the AHL across three seasons as he transitioned first to being Pekka Rinne’s backup before taking over as Nashville’s starter. That time in the minors helped him hone all the small details of the position, particularly tracking plays and dealing with traffic in front of the net.

“It comes with experience,” Saros said. “You learn to expect the unexpected. Guys aren’t always looking where they’re passing. They usually know where the other guy is. It helps if you know at all times where all of the guys are and some patterns that might happen in games.”

As Saros put it, once you’re in the NHL, “You learn on the go, but you don’t have much time to learn.”

That’s why the Sabres need to be mindful of not putting too much on Levi too soon. He needs a foundation of experience to lean on so that he’s better able to handle the challenges of the NHL. Bales was in Pittsburgh when the Penguins were developing Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Murray, a third-round pick, played a season-and-a-half in the AHL before turning pro. Bales considered that to be on the faster side in terms of goalie development compared to Jarry, who played more than 140 AHL games before permanently breaking into the NHL.

While history serves as a reference point, the Sabres aren’t going to put Levi into a box.

“Every guy’s got a different development path,” Bales said. “I think going in with an open mind and not saying he has to have ‘X’ number of games. But it’s possible he may need extra games. You make those adjustments as you see how the prospects develop.”

Now that Levi is in the fold and Eric Comrie is healthy, the Sabres have four active goalies on the roster. The goalies in the room have already welcomed the rookie. And they, like his peers around the league, are ready to see him in action. Levi has been spending the games up in the press box with a notepad, studying the structure of Buffalo’s defense and where the chances tend to come from. He’s also been closely watching the visiting goalies to pick up whatever tips he can.

“He’s a hockey nerd,” Comrie said. “I mean, it reminds me the same way I used to think when I was his age and just that eagerness and happiness and that excitement to be around. He’s a heck of a hockey player and I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do. I’m really excited to watch him grow.”

What Levi is starting to realize is that some of the same players he grew up idolizing are starting to pick up details from his game, too.

“It just shows even the best are still willing to learn and that’s how you become the best,” Levi said.

“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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