BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — When the whistle blows for one of each period’s three commercial timeouts, Sabres goalie Devon Levi skates to the blue line and then back toward the net before stopping to kneel between the face-off dots to find his moment of Zen.
As shovel-pushing ice crew members whiz around him, and music cranks from the public address speakers, Levi tunes out by closing his eyes and resting his arms on his stick balanced across his pads. It’s a meditative practice the Buffalo rookie turned to during the 2021 world junior championships when Levi encountered his first lengthy on-ice breaks.
“It’s easy to get distracted or kind of lose focus in those five minutes,” Levi said. “So I just take that time just to focus on staying present.”
It’s what Levi describes as his way of stopping time. The 21-year-old might well be ahead of his time in potentially becoming one of hockey’s first goalies to make the leap from college directly to the NHL without a stop in the minors.
Levi’s NHL development began in March after he left Northeastern to sign with the Sabres and was thrust into the team’s late-season playoff push. Buffalo fell two points short of ending what now stands as a league-worst 12-season postseason drought, but it was not because of Levi.
He kept the team’s faint hopes alive with a 5-2 record and a 2.94 goals-against average. It was a steady performance in must-win situations, providing Sabres management the belief Levi can handle a bigger role on a team having playoff aspirations.
“I know it’s a short sample, but I think what he showed is maturity, no stage is too big for him. He’s prepared,” general manager Kevyn Adams said.
Among NHL goalies, Boston’s Jeremy Swayman and Florida’s Spencer Knight came closest to making the jump from college to the NHL. Swayman, out of Maine, combined to appear in 14 AHL games vs. 88 in the NHL. Knight, a Boston College product, has appeared in 13 AHL games and 57 in the NHL.
This season, most teams have at least one if not two established veteran goalies.
One exception is St. Louis, which features rookie Joel Hofer as Jordan Binnington’s potential backup. Hofer, however, has combined for 96 AHL games over the past three seasons. In Anaheim, the Ducks are still carrying rookie Lukas Dostal, who has 23 NHL appearances, but spent the past three seasons also playing in the minors.
In Buffalo, the Sabres prepared for their season-opener against the Rangers on Thursday still carrying three goalies, rounded out by Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
Coach Don Granato had glowing praise for Levi last week in saying he had qualities that reminded him of two former University of Wisconsin teammates, goalies Curtis Joseph, whose 454 career wins rank seventh on the NHL list, and Mike Richter, whose 301 rank sixth among U.S.-born players.
“Curtis Joseph was an amazing athlete in flexibility, mobility, agility. And Mike Richter was very cerebral … He was very methodical and very knowledgeable of the position itself,” Granato said. “And Devon has both of those qualities.”
Levi won the Richter Trophy as college hockey’s top goalie in 2021, and his athleticism is apparent. Considered under-sized by NHL standards at 6-feet and 192 pounds, Levi developed his agility and footwork.
It’s an underdog approach in which Levi prides himself in being the sixth-last player — 212th overall — selected in the 2020 draft by Florida, which traded him to Buffalo a year later in a deal to acquire forward Sam Reinhart.
“It’s like Tom Brady taken 199th overall and has a prove-them-wrong mentality,” Levi said of the seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. “I don’t think it would have fit with my character to be taken in the first round. I think seventh-round pick is kind of what makes me me.”
Martin Brodeur, the NHL’s career leader in wins, was 21 when he broke into the league on a full-time basis in 1993-94 following a season in the minors.
“You can tell he’s a kid that prepares himself well. I was watching his little habits. He’s just got it down pat,” said Brodeur, now a New Jersey Devils executive, recalling watching Levi play last year. “He’s fast-tracking this thing. Some kids are ready for it. Other kids are not. The Sabres must think he’s ready.”
Levi’s confidence is not lacking. And his analytical approach provides him foundational perspective that’s, perhaps, beyond his years. Levi was a high-school valedictorian growing up in suburban Montreal, and he is one year short of completing a degree in computer science.
It makes no difference that few others, if any, have made the jump from college to the NHL. And it won’t be the end of the world if Levi has to develop in the minors.
“The level changes, but you’re still playing the same game of hockey,” Levi said. “The second the puck leaves the stick, it’s just a puck coming at you. It doesn’t matter who shot it. It’s just see the puck, stop the puck.”
Levi has overcome his share of setbacks. One of the most notable came at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. Levi was selected to represent Canada but never saw a minute of action behind the more experienced Edward Pasquale and Matt Tomkins.
He drew motivation from that experience.
“I wouldn’t say it was a disappointment. Things happen for a reason,” he said. “I think it pushed me, motivated me to, you know, next time around to be the guy.”
Levi’s on-ice meditation routine was inspired by actor Liam Neeson’s character, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, in the 1999 Star Wars release, “The Phantom Menace.” During a fateful battle, Neeson kneels to meditate when he and his combatant are separated by a force field. Levi doesn’t bat an eye when reminded Neeson’s character dies shortly after the battle resumes.
Levi has thought this part out, too.
“I kind of love that, because you can’t have absolute certainty. You never know if it’s going to work out or not. That’s not why you do it,” he said.
“You do it because it’s the right thing to do in that moment,” Levi added. “You don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But you just have to let it go and let the present moment happen.”