BUFFALO – Seven late-season games, that’s it. Just two weeks of NHL action following his arrival from college. That small sample size helped convince the Sabres rookie Devon Levi could be their No. 1 goalie.
While they haven’t officially named Levi, 21, their starter, he’s expected to earn the nod for tonight’s season opener against the New York Rangers, a team he beat twice last season, and carry the load throughout the season.
On Wednesday, the affable Levi couldn’t hide his excitement for the upcoming campaign. When he hears his name tonight during player introductions, he said “he’s going to have goosebumps.”
“It’s so special, so exciting – home opener, season opener in front of a packed arena in Buffalo,” a smiling Levi said following practice in KeyBank Center. “So can’t really write a better story than that. Can’t ask for much more.”
Levi wrote his own unique story last season, joining Buffalo in March straight from Northeastern. No goalie has ever jumped from college to the NHL without at least a brief stop in the minors.
But Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams doesn’t put much stock in how things have traditionally been done. He prefers to analyze each situation individually, and he believed Levi possessed the talent and maturity to immediately be given the net last year as they fought for a playoff spot.
Levi rewarded the Sabres’ strong faith, compiling a 5-2-0 mark as they fell one win short of earning their first playoff berth since 2011.
“I know it’s a short sample, but I think what he showed is that the maturity, no stage is too big for him,” Adams said last month. “He’s prepared. And just because he is (21), doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put a tremendous amount of work in on and off the ice to maybe put himself in a position that he’s a little bit more mature.”
Levi shows some of his maturity through adaptability, which Sabres coach Don Granato said illustrates he’s ready to seize his opportunity. He’s always looking for ways to improve.
“So every situation that happens to him, even if it’s adverse, he says, ‘This is great, I can fix that,’ because he’s intelligent, he’s athletic,” Granato said. “It’s a way to be better. ‘If I fix that, I’ll be even better.’ So it’s a whole attitude combined with appetite and high skill.”
That special package has created a set of high expectations for Levi, who’s viewed as an X factor.
If he establishes himself a topflight starter, the Sabres, who scored 293 goals last season but allowed 297, could make the playoffs. If he falters, they might turn to Eric Comrie or Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, their other goalies.
The Sabres, however, must improve around Levi or any of their netminders. As their young roster developed over the last two years, Granato felt emphasizing defense too much would take attention away from other areas.
Now, he said the team will have a greater focus on defense behind the scenes this season.
“Not that we’re going to turn into a defensive team, but we can clean up things just by focusing better and concentrating better,” he said.
Only in the last decade has goaltending become a notable problem for the Sabres. For 44 years, from Roger Crozier’s acquisition months before their inaugural season until Ryan Miller’s departure in 2014, it was usually one of their greatest strengths.
Gerry Desjardins took over for Crozier. Don Edwards and Bob Sauve became perhaps the league’s best tandem after Desjardins retired. Tom Barrasso won the Vezina and Calder trophies in 1983-84 fresh out of high school.
Daren Puppa replaced Barrasso and shortly after the Sabres traded Puppa, Dominik Hasek emerged as the “Dominator,” perhaps as the greatest goalie ever.
But since they traded Miller, whose No. 30 they retired last season, they’ve enjoyed virtually no stability as the position, using a whopping 22 goalies.
Just hearing his name mentioned among some of the Sabres’ franchise greats felt special for Levi.
“I’m just super grateful to be in this organization who has had amazing goalies and to be kind of classified amongst those guys,” he said. “It’s a huge honor to be given this honor by the coaching staff, by Kevyn. To be in this locker room, it’s so special. There’s been some really special goalies where I’ve been sitting. It’s just an honor to kind of carry the torch and do the most I can do with it.”