BUFFALO – Long before goalie Devon Levi joined the Sabres, he earned what he called one of the biggest wins of his life here.
“Even though I was a little kid,” said an excited Levi, who will be making his highly anticipated NHL debut tonight against the New York Rangers.
Levi was 13 to be exact, in the infancy of his career. He had tried out and been cut from an East Coast Selects team that was heading to NAPS, a prospect tournament being held at the Northtown Center in Amherst. Still, he participated with his Montreal-area team, the Lac St-Louis Lions.
The East Coast Selects annihilated Lac St-Louis 7-0 in round-robin play.
“We met them again in the final and beat them 2-1 in overtime,” Levi said following Thursday’s practice at KeyBank Center. “It was a pretty big deal growing up.”
He added: “It was just a great comeback story, beating that team.”
That, of course, wasn’t the first time Levi would be overlooked and later rise to the occasion.
Before he starred for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship in 2021, earning the tournament’s top goalie honors, he wasn’t even invited to the country’s summer camp. Months earlier, 18 goalies were picked ahead of him in the 2020 NHL Draft. The Florida Panthers finally took a flier on him in the seventh round.
But the days of Levi, 21, flying under the radar have ended. Over two dynamic college seasons at Northeastern, he developed into one of hockey’s most coveted goaltending prospects.
His arrival in Buffalo has been anxiously awaited for more than a year.
The Sabres, who acquired Levi in the Sam Reinhart trade in 2021, wanted to him to become comfortable in the NHL after he signed his entry-level contract two weeks ago. As he waited nearly a week for his immigration paperwork to be finalized, he began acclimating to his new surroundings and building relationships. He finally got on the ice with his teammates last Friday for a pregame skate.
“He’s a very quick goalie, tracks the puck really well,” Sabres goalie Eric Comrie said. “So I’m excited to see how they transfer. I mean, he’s moving so well on the ice. His movement side to side is excellent. It’s a treat to watch how well he skates.”
When the 6-foot, 184-pound Levi practiced formally for the first time Tuesday, he had his own net, a sign he would be playing soon. The Sabres, remember, have three goalies who have been practicing and four on the roster.
Thursday’s practice was just his second in the NHL. Levi, however, feel he’s ready.
“He feels that he’s acclimated well enough that tomorrow is the right time,” Sabres coach Don Granato said.
Naturally, Levi said he’s “been dreaming of this moment my whole life.”
“So for it to finally be here, it’s a big deal,” he said. “I’m really excited.”
Levi said facing the Rangers, a star-studded team featuring South Buffalo’s Patrick Kane, Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin, is “a hell of a story.”
“I love it,” said Levi, who said “a good amount” of family and friends will attend the game.
Levi planned to watch the Rangers play the New Jersey Devils later Thursday to prepare for his start.
Granato expects Levi’s teammates will respond to the rookie’s presence in net. In Monday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the bench erupted when winger Lukas Rousek scored a goal early in his NHL debut.
“You go into a game and you know that 18 other skaters are aware they have a first-time goaltender in the net,” Granato said. “We saw the guys, how excited they were for Rousek the other night to score his first goal. They’re well aware when a new guy comes in the lineup.”
Granato believes the Sabres will “be more dialed in the defensive aspects than maybe they would otherwise because they want to support him … as a new player.”
“These players all identify with the most memorable moment of their career, I would imagine for all these guys, is the first time they put an NHL jersey on and played their first NHL game,” he said. “And so I know they have a lot of respect for that, for the next guy who’s in that situation. And I think being a goaltender, I think you’ll potentially see a few more shot blocks and a little bit more backchecking and attention to detail.”