If Buffalo Sabres prospect Devon Levi had left Northeastern last year and turned pro, he might’ve already earned his first taste of the NHL.
Levi likely would’ve started his career with the Rochester Americans. But given the uncertain state of the Sabres’ goaltending at times this season, he could’ve been awarded a look by now.
Instead, Levi, 21, is back at Northeastern, where he’s grateful for the adversity he has endured during what has become a rewarding campaign.
The youngster is still one of college hockey’s elite goalies, mind you. He recently earned MVP honors as Northeastern won the prestigious Beanpot Cup. He’s a semifinalist for the Richter Award, which he won last season as the NCAA’s top netminder.
The Huskies earned the No. 3 seed in the Hockey East Tournament and begin play Saturday against a yet-to-be determined opponent.
This season, however, has been a much different experience than his first one.
“These lessons that I’ve learned this year have been different lessons than I learned last year,” Levi said last month. “It’s been an amazing year so far. The ups and the downs is what makes it so fun.”
A year ago, he roared onto the scene, posting a minuscule 1.54 goals-against average, a gaudy .954 save percentage and 10 shutouts while backstopping the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament. Personally, it was almost a perfect season.
“Last year was a little bit smooth sailing,” Levi said. “We were winning a lot, everything was going great, played my best hockey all year. So it’s just a matter of time until you hit a little obstacle. And then it’s like, ‘How do I get past this obstacle?’”
Those challenges started in mid-November, when Levi and the Huskies had a four-game losing streak. Following one win, they lost to lowly Bentley. In his next outing Jan. 1, he allowed eight goals in an ugly loss to Harvard.
Naturally, Mike Condon, Northeastern’s goalie coach, never wants to see his players struggle. But as Levi hit his first rut, Condon saw a silver lining. He wanted Levi to return to college this year so he could learn to handle the adversity that accompanies a full season.
“Obviously, you want to win, but my job is to develop him,” Condon said. “And I was just (like), ‘This is good.’ And I kept saying to him, ‘This is why you’re coming back, because right now, you have to come up with a solution for how you’re feeling with these ebbs and flows of a season. Because they spare no player. They’re going to come.’”
Not surprisingly, Levi recaptured his old form when conference play began and buoyed Northeastern’s success. He won 11 of his last 14 outings following that embarrassing loss to Harvard, including a victory over UConn at the “Frozen Fenway” outdoor game and three tight wins to capture the Beanpot.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Levi said the stretch against top competition and some marquee games “kind of like forced us to be better.”
“We went on a stretch on the road where we thought it was going to be easy, we were playing some lower teams, and we didn’t play our best hockey,” he said. “We learned from that every team in the NCAA is a good team and anyone can beat anyone. So it wasn’t really we’re not good, it’s more than we didn’t want to win enough, we weren’t excited enough, we weren’t having fun.”
In seven of those final 14 games, Levi allowed just one goal or posted a shutout. He finished with a 2.25 goals-against average, a .932 save percentage and six shutouts.
He credits managing his energy levels – basically, not overworking himself in practice – for helping him find a groove.
“He’s just focusing on what’s the best value for his energy at the time, and that’s really a big part of becoming a professional,” Condon said.
Condon said Levi has become more efficient in his preparation. He said last year, for example, he might become “spun up” because he couldn’t do part of his routine.
“This year he’s just really fine-tuned it to make everything more efficient,” he said. “That has a tendency to slip into your game in a positive way.”
Levi believes the early-season hurdles he and his teammates faced have made him a better goalie and will help him as his career progresses.
“You can learn from them and you have that for the rest of your career,” he said. “How did I get out of this slump? How did I help the team out of the slump? How personally did I make my game better? So it’s just more experience I have so next time it happens, which it will happen, I’m more knowledgeable, I’m more experienced. Maybe I reduce the time that the adversity hits.
“And you just got to love it at the end of the day. The more adversity you face, it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Levi, of course, looked ready for the pros a year ago. Still, he has embraced a patient approach with his development.
Last season was the first he played for Northeastern, as a broken rib sidelined him all of 2020-21 college campaign. He did, however, perform dynamically for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship that year.
A sense of unfinished business helped lure him back to school. So did an opportunity to play in the Beanpot. Last season, he missed the tournament because he represented the Canadian Olympic Team at the Beijing Games.
Levi was at his best during the Beanpot, allowing just six total goals as Northeastern won all three contests, including the last two in a shootout.
In the championship game against Harvard at a packed TD Garden, he stopped all three shooters to secure the title.
“Being at the tournament, let alone winning, just that has made it worth it,” Levi said. “Plus all the other games that I’ve played and all the lessons that I’ve learned. Being in school is the best time in your life. … So I’m just enjoying it. I’m enjoying being in class, being with my friends here on my team. Still learning, still getting better as a person, as a player, just getting ready for pro hockey.”
He added: “We (won) a Beanpot, that checks off one box, but the big box is coming soon.”
If Northeastern reaches that big box, the NCAA Tournament, if could be Levi’s last hurrah in college. While he hasn’t confirmed anything, it’s widely believed he’ll sign his entry-level contract with the Sabres following the season.
Levi clearly feels comfortable in Buffalo. He knows some Sabres well, having played with forwards Dylan Cozens, Peyton Krebs and Jack Quinn at World Juniors. When he visited for development camp last summer, he said he did not want to leave.
“It’s really cool,” he said. “I got to talk to (general manager) Kevyn Adams a few times. It’s really cool to see like how much of a great guy he has and how much he cares about the organization and bringing good people in and doing it the right way. So I already knew that they’re going to have a better year than everyone thought this year just based off the way Kevyn and the assistant GMs and the whole coaching staff runs just the whole program.”