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How Sabres prospect Devon Levi developed into a record-setting goalie

How Sabres prospect Devon Levi developed into a record-setting goalie

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devon levi canada sabres

Canada goalie Devon Levi makes the save against the United States during the first period of the championship game in the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, on Jan. 5, 2021, in Edmonton, Alberta.

Before Devon Levi wowed fans across Canada with his historic dominance in net, he was a wide-eyed child gawking at the National Hockey League players visiting his local rink in Montreal.

Gregarious and curious, a young Levi mustered the courage to introduce himself and ask for an autograph or stick. Roberto Luongo, a two-time Olympic gold medalist goaltender and six-time NHL all-star, towered over Levi to the point that Luongo extended only his index and middle fingers to shake the small child’s hand.

Little did Levi know that someday he would be the center of attention for young children aspiring to achieve on-ice greatness and that Luongo would play a significant role in his path toward national fame.

“It’s sort of the cycle of life,” Levi remarked in a recent phone interview with The Buffalo News.

These days, it’s Levi who draws a crowd, as children want to meet the 19-year-old goalie who broke Carey Price’s record at the IIHF World Junior Championship with a .964 save percentage in seven games at the annual tournament. Levi recorded three shutouts and a remarkable 0.75 goals-against average, lifting Canada to the gold-medal game, where it was defeated by the United States, 2-0.

A broken rib suffered during the tournament prevented Levi from appearing in a game as a freshman for Northeastern University, but the two-week run in Edmonton cemented him as a legitimate NHL prospect and led to his July trade to the Sabres in a move that also brought a 2022 lottery-protected first-round draft choice from the Florida Panthers in exchange for five-time 20-goal scorer Sam Reinhart.

Listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds, Levi wasn’t selected until the seventh round, the sixth-to-last pick in the 2020 draft, because scouts wondered if a goalie his size could thrive in the NHL. It was Luongo, now head of goaltending development in Florida, who urged the Panthers to gamble on Levi. Now, Levi is on a path that few expected before his memorable run for Canada.

“I was super understanding about the trade,” said Levi, who has yet to sign an entry-level contract and is preparing for his sophomore season at Northeastern. “And, obviously, know it's a business and they are doing what they thought would give them success. And there was no hard feelings there. I was super happy with the trade, going to Buffalo. It's a great opportunity to play for such a great program that's had a tradition of success in the past, especially with Ryan Miller playing there. There's just so much there that I'm really excited for.”

Neither world juniors nor the NHL were on Levi’s mind when he first started skating. His passion began while playing street hockey with his father, Laurent, in a Montreal suburb, and up until 11 years old, Devon’s only experience in goal was on concrete.

It wasn’t until an unexpected occurrence that Levi discovered his love for stopping pucks. He and his teammates were invited by the now-defunct Montreal Junior Hockey Club to participate in an on-ice shootout during an intermission in Verdun Auditorium, an arena that seats more than 4,000 fans. His team's goalie wasn’t able to attend, and Levi was quick to volunteer. He stopped every shot that he faced.

“I was like, ‘OK, I want to be a goalie,' ” recalled Levi. “That was so sick. An unreal experience. Like even in front of fans. It was unreal. I knew I wanted to stay in this position.”

Thus began Levi’s quest to learn as much as possible about goaltending. He studies past and current athletes, observing strengths and weaknesses in search for anything that can help improve his game. Even at a young age, Levi wasn’t afraid to challenge himself. Rather than focusing on a dream to someday play professionally, he was only concerned about improving every time he stepped onto the ice.

Levi was 13 years old when he first met Marco Raimondo, a goaltending coach in the Montreal area, and the youth hockey player showed an insatiable appetite for knowledge. It was Levi’s intelligence that struck Raimondo, as the teenager had a mature understanding of how to approach his on-ice development.

"Before I noticed his compete, what stood out was his brain and his ability to kind of make reads and you know, process the game," said Raimondo, who has worked with Levi for approximately four years. "The way he goes about things is very calculated. He has an engineer-like approach to goaltending, which is kind of rare." 

Levi was a two-time recipient of the FAEQ/Montreal Canadiens' Foundation Award and Scholarship for Athletic and Academic Excellence, and he’s majoring in computer science at Northeastern. A class valedictorian, Levi applies the same classroom problem-solving skills on the ice. And he’s never shied away from a challenge.

At 14, before attending his own practices with the Lac St. Louis Lions, Levi would join a group of NHL players for on-ice sessions. They needed a goalie and Levi wasn’t afraid to try to stop high-velocity shots.

Alex Killorn (Tampa Bay Lightning), Max Pacioretty (Vegas Golden Knights), Anthony Duclair (Florida Panthers), Paul Byron (Montreal Canadiens) and Mike Matheson (Pittsburgh Penguins) were among the pros shooting against Levi, who left a lasting impression.

“I remember shooting on a 14-year-old Devon Levi,” Killorn tweeted during Levi's successful run at world juniors in January. “Kid would take hundreds of shots and breakaways from NHL players after skating with his own team. He had a great attitude and competed like (heck). It’s no wonder he’s doing so well. I couldn’t even score on him then!!”

“They were hard to stop, especially as a 14-year-old," Levi recalled. "I was smaller and these guys had rifles. So facing their shots and just getting a feel for pro shots at that age was really, really good because right after that, I'd go on to my team practice and I would feel like I was playing against little kids who can't shoot the puck. … I'm super appreciative that they had me on the ice with them. And that they weren't scared to shoot hard. Like, normally when there's a little kid maybe they'd be a bit fearful, but they're trying to score and I was trying to stop them. It was super competitive.”

For the 2019-20 season, Levi joined the Carleton Place Canadiens of the CCHL, a junior A league based in the Ottawa area, and had a dominant showing, posting a 1.47 goals-against average and .941 save percentage while recording eight shutouts in 37 games. He was named the Canadian Junior Hockey League Player of the Year and earned the league’s top goalie and top rookie awards.

Levi also was selected to play for Team Canada East at the World Junior A Challenge, an annual under-20 tournament modeled after the IIHF World Junior Championship. Levi helped Canada East earn a silver medal by stopping 77 of 80 shots, and he was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

Yet, scouts still had doubts about how his skills would translate to a higher level.

“He's gifted, for sure,” said Raimondo. “There's obviously goalie coaches around the league that reached out to me prior to the draft to talk about him, and I mean, 100%, like size was a concern, but I kept repeating, high hockey IQ trumps everything, right? Like, you look at the guys that are 6-feet and below in the league, the reason why they're there is that they're just so intelligent, and they always know where to be, they're a couple steps ahead of everyone else. He’s exactly that. He has that IQ away from the ice, he has that IQ on the ice. He loves to compete, but I just think that he loves being a goalie. He just absolutely loves being a goalie. He loves stopping pucks. He wants to know everything about it and wants to get better.”

Levi wasn’t one of five goalies selected to participate in Hockey Canada’s virtual evaluation camp in July 2020, a sign that he was unlikely to play in the IIHF World Junior Championship. However, the team’s goalie coach, former NHLer Jason LaBarbera, pivoted and, based on Levi’s performance at the World Junior A Challenge, decided to invite him to the pre-tournament camp in November 2020.

Levi seized the starting job and began his historic run while playing on a team that included Sabres center Dylan Cozens and prospect Jack Quinn. But when the tournament was over, the adrenaline wore off and Levi’s fractured rib became bothersome. His freshman season at Northeastern ended before it began.

Levi spent his free time studying goalies across the NHL, particularly Juuse Saros, a 5-11 rookie with the Nashville Predators. While most starters around the league were anywhere from 6-2 to 6-6, Levi wanted to study someone his own size.

To maintain and improve hand-eye coordination, Levi used Vizual Edge, a computer application designed to help athletes with convergence and divergence vision training. Unable to step onto the ice, Levi worked on puck tracking using the virtual reality platform “Sense Arena.” He also performed ball drills, including juggling.

Every exercise was done to keep Levi ready in the event he was medically cleared to rejoin his teammates. That opportunity won’t arrive until Levi enters training camp as Northeastern’s starting goaltender. Until then, he’ll continue to skate at his local rink in Montreal, signing autographs and sharing knowledge with children who hope to someday be just like him.

"It was a good, well-rounded feeling to give back to the community and make some little kids happy," said Levi. "Pretty cool.”

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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