Devon Levi not to be counted out in battle for Canada hockey's Olympic crease
20-year-old Sabres prospect grateful for opportunity to represent country in Beijing
Goalie Devon Levi had never stepped foot outside North America before flying to Davos, Switzerland, this week for an eight-day Hockey Canada training camp in preparation for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
A high achiever in all areas, the 20-year-old computer science/business major packed his homework in hopes of not falling behind in his classes at Boston's Northeastern University.
"Obviously, I still brought my books," Levi said Tuesday via Zoom, clearly a little star-struck after his first on-ice session with his new teammates. "My teachers back at Northeastern are very supportive. They're on my side, and they want me to chase my dreams.
If Canadians are shocked to see Levi's name on the non-NHL men's Olympic hockey roster, the Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., product empathizes — for he, too, is stunned by the turn of events.
"If you asked me last year or the year before if I ever thought I would go to the Olympics, I would have said probably not," said Levi, a seventh-round pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. "Forget about in a year or two. I'm super grateful to be here."
WATCH | Getting to know Canada's Olympic men's hockey team:
But Levi, who played junior A with the Carleton Place Canadians of the Central Canada Hockey League, is clearly not just tagging along as a spectator with an eye to the future. He has a legitimate shot at seeing game action with gold on the line, just like his childhood hero, Carey Price, at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
"Look at his numbers," Team Canada general manager Shane Doan said of Levi, whose NHL rights were traded last summer, along with a first-round pick, to Buffalo from Florida in exchange for Sam Reinhart. "It's absolutely incredible. He's doing things at the NCAA level that just don't happen."
Indeed. Levi has an eye-popping 1.55 goals against-average, a .948 save percentage and nine shutouts in 24 games this season.
In a short tournament like the Olympics, goaltending is a paramount — especially this year with less than two weeks for the team to gel in time for the opening game on Feb. 10 against Germany.
Even with a defensive-minded coach like Claude Julien, chemistry between players is difficult to rush and coverage mishaps are a given.
WATCH | Explaining men's ice hockey in the Olympics:
Edward Pasquale, 31, is the only goalie on the Canadian team with NHL experience, having played three career games for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now the starting goalie for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, with a 1.99 goals against average and .916 save percentage in 38 games this season.
The 27-year-old Matt Tomkins, a seventh-round pick by Chicago in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, has a 2.32 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in 23 games this season for Frölunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League.
"It will be interesting to see how all that evolves," Julien said of his goaltending depth chart. "Because right now, in the start of our camp, and even in evaluation, there was nobody that was able to say, 'he's No. 1 for sure.'
"I think the fact that we may have a 1A and 1B may even be a better situation. But nonetheless, we feel really comfortable with the situation in net."
Don't count Devon out
Conventional wisdom may suggest those top two spots, based on age and experience, belong to Pasquale and Tomkins. But Jon Goyens, who coached Levi with the midget AAA Lac St. Louis Lions, warns against counting Levi out.
At six-foot, 185 pounds, Levi is undersized for a goalie. He makes up for that perceived deficit by getting on top of his crease, smothering pucks, tracking the play and outsmarting the opposition with what coaches call a tremendous hockey IQ.
At the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships, Levi introduced himself to Canadians by breaking Price's tournament record with a .964 save percentage and tying the record for world junior shutouts with three. He was also named the tournament's top goaltender with a 0.75 goals against average — all while playing with a broken rib that ended up sidelining him for the rest of the season.
"Wearing the Canadian logo, it's a feeling like no other," Levi said. "Last year, at around Christmas time, I thought I was putting down the jersey for the last time.
"And here we are again."