The Buffalo Sabres sent goaltender Devon Levi to the AHL’s Rochester Americans on Tuesday – and it’s definitely the right call.
Here’s the tale of the tape. Levi has struggled with a 3-4-1 record and a save percentage of .876. His minus-1.6 goals saved above average is 30th out of 44 goalies with at least nine starts this year, according to MoneyPuck. It hasn’t been a disaster by any means, but given his waiver-exempt status, his age and lack of pro experience, sending Levi back to Rochester made sense.
The hype surrounding Levi’s arrival was massive. He capped off one of the most impressive college careers by a goaltender in recent history, highlighted by 16 shutouts over a two-year span at Northeastern University. He won an unimaginable number of awards, including the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s top goaltender in 2022 and 2023. He was a Hobey Baker Award finalist both years, too.
So, when he eventually made his NHL debut with the Sabres last year – and took off, going 5-2-0 down the stretch to keep the team in the postseason hunt – fans were rightfully excited. But, as many predicted, it’s been a difficult first pro season for the 21-year-old. There’s a reason we’ve seen so few players go straight from the NCAA to the NHL full-time.
Take Spencer Knight, for example. After an outstanding run with Boston College, he went 4-0-0 to kick off his professional career in 2020-21. He was so good that many thought he’d be the No. 1 the following year, but he struggled and eventually found himself in the AHL.
There’s also Ryan Miller, who many expect to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2024. He’s often regarded as one of the greatest college goalies ever, with Levi’s tenure often being compared to Miller’s. After a third outstanding year with Michigan State, Miller turned pro in time for the 2002-03 season. He got into 15 NHL games, but still spent the majority of his first three pro seasons playing with Rochester. The Sabres knew they had a special talent, but he needed time.
And Levi does too.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has been excellent for the Sabres this year, and while he tends to be streaky, he’s had enough hits the past few years to trust him with the gig for now. Eric Comrie can be a bit hit-or-miss, but he played some good hockey before dealing with injuries last year. UPL’s the man, though, so they don’t need Comrie to be mega.
Rochester is a solid team, so it’s not like Levi’s going to be thrown to the wolves and forced into a tough situation. Isak Rosen and Jiri Kulich – the team’s top two scorers – were recently called up to the Sabres, but they’re still a decent group. Statistically, Dustin Tokarski and Devin Cooley haven’t been spectacular, but Tokarski, in particular, would be an excellent mentor for Levi.
And, seriously, Levi’s still so young. The only other NHL goaltenders 23 and under in the NHL this year are St. Louis’ Joel Hofer, Dustin Wolf and Levi. Of the three, Wolf has made one start, and Hofer is a backup to Jordan Binnington. Goaltenders take so much longer to develop, and it’s why Calgary (Wolf), Nashville (Yaroslav Askarov) and Minnesota (Jesper Wallstedt) – three teams with elite goaltending prospects – haven’t been willing to rush them up to the NHL just yet. Heck, Wolf won the AHL’s top goaltender award two years in a row and he’s still down with the Wranglers.
Young players need a dose of confidence. Think about the mental struggle it can be going from the top of the top in college to just fighting for time in the NHL. It can be daunting for a young player with little experience to draw from. We’re seeing a similar thing in Montreal with Juraj Slafkovsky, the top pick from the 2022 NHL Draft.
It felt like Buffalo was trying to shoehorn Levi into the lineup when there was little reason to do so. But it was fair not to trust either other option heading into the season and instead try and ride the hot hand. But the predictable outcome occurred, and now Levi’s headed down the road to Rochester. And there’s no shame in that – it’s where he should have been from the get-go. Reps matter, and there’s a reason very few young goaltenders skip past the AHL altogether.
I don’t know how long the Sabres intend on keeping Levi in the AHL. Maybe he doesn’t come back for the duration of the regular season, and that’s fine. He’s not the guy that’s going to lead the team to a Stanley Cup this year. Levi is young, still learning and needs time to improve his craft. This isn’t college anymore. Levi has already gone up against Auston Matthews, Artemi Panarin, Steven Stamkos, William Nylander, David Pastrnak, Alex Ovechkin and Jack Hughes. Talk about a rude welcome.
Levi’s demotion is the best-case scenario for all involved. He’ll be the first goalie called up in case of injury. But if that doesn’t happen, he’ll likely get the bulk of the starts with Rochester, which could include a playoff run next spring, too. If Levi is the team’s long-term answer in net – and there’s little reason to doubt that right now – let him figure things out at his own pace.
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