BUFFALO – In his first days in the NHL, Sabres goalie Devon Levi looked so impressive that coach Don Granato kept riding the neophyte.
Levi, 21, turned heads in his debut March 31, so after starting Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen the next night, Granato utilized the newcomer for five consecutive do-or-die games before the Sabres were eliminated from playoff contention.
The Sabres’ reliance on Levi for a stretch of critical late-season contests raised some eyebrows. The youngster, of course, was expected to earn a long look. But after Luukkonen, 24, played April 1, he did not see any action over the final seven games.
Granato even turned to Levi consecutive days, starting him April 10 in New York against the Rangers and the next night in New Jersey, where the Sabres’ 6-2 loss to the Devils ended their postseason hopes.
“Devon played really well in the Rangers (game) and won (3-2) in a shootout,” Granato said during Wednesday’s end-of-season news conference in KeyBank Center. “Outstanding. Would you have made a goalie change next night? I don’t know if it would have been fair to have Upie go in. And what if Upie didn’t win in New Jersey? What would be the case? You can only imagine what the case would be.”
Granato said “the decision was not made against” Luukkonen, a rookie who started most of the season and won a team-high 17 games.
“It might have been made in light of here we have two great goalies that … we want to set them up for success, for long-term success,” he said. “So if you decide to put Upie in that game and it doesn’t work well compared to if you put Devon in that game and it doesn’t work well, is there a difference? I’ll leave that up to anybody.”
After veteran goalie Craig Anderson started last Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win against the Ottawa Senators, his final NHL appearance, Levi played Friday’s season finale, a 5-2 road win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Luukkonen did not even dress for that game.
In starting Levi in Columbus, Granato said the Sabres considered “who could pull more out of this game in the form of hindsight?”
“We’re … trying to maximize the whole group development,” he said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Upie, you can’t play now.’ It’s we’re moving the whole thing along, so I want to just abolish any negative thought with Upie when we’re starting to make those decisions. It had nothing to do with that. It’s moving this organization and franchise in bigger steps when there’s an opportunity for a bigger step.”
Levi stepped into the NHL just two weeks after leaving Northeastern and made an immediate impact, compiling a 5-2-0 record. He would appear to be the favorite to become the Sabres’ No. 1 netminder next season.
Nothing, however, has been decided.
“That net is nobody’s right now when we talk about the future,” Granato said. “It’s got to be earned and then re-earned and re-earned again.”
In addition to Luukkonen, the Sabres also have goalie Eric Comrie, who signed two-year contract last summer.
Comrie, 27, started early in the season before an MCL injury he suffered in mid-November opened the door for Luukkonen.
“Big picture from the goaltending, I’d say really excited about where we’re at,” Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said.
Granato said he would feel comfortable if Levi and Luukkonen, who have just 53 games of combined NHL experience, are his goalies next season.
“They’re talented guys that are very dialed in and come to the rink and improve every day,” he said.
On Sunday, Luukkonen acknowledged he expected to play a late-season game. While he was clearly disappointed, the Finn said he sees a future with the Sabres.
“I talked to you guys over and over about we believe in UPL and he’s young, he’s learning, he’s growing,” Adams said.
Remember, Adams’ predecessor, Jason Botterill, drafted Luukkonen in 2017. Adams acquired Levi in a trade in 2021.
It can be argued Luukkonen arrived in Buffalo a bit ahead of schedule. Yes, he just finished his fourth pro season. But he began the year with the Rochester Americans and forced the Sabres to keep him when Comrie returned in early January.
“Where was he going to get his games?” Adams said of Luukkonen’s season. “We were going to let him kind of decide that, and when Coms had the injury, he came up and he was inconsistent at times, but the overall, really solid for us.”
Luukkonen played 33 NHL games this season, compiling a 3.58 goals-against average and an .892 save percentage behind the Sabres’ porous defense, numbers well below the league average (2.97 and .904).
“In terms of confidence and belief, really good with UPL,” Adams said. “And then I think what Devon (did), if you go back to my previous press conferences over the last couple years, you could tell my excitement and just how I felt about him as a player, as a person, and bringing him in and having him do what he did, it was pretty special at the end.”