As NorthEastern’s season appears to have come to an end, the Buffalo Sabres and goalie prospect Devon Levi have an important decision to make. The Sabres acquired Levi in a trade with the Florida Panthers. According to many, the 21 year-old goalie is a top 10 NHL goalie prospect and the termination of his collegiate season has been a widely anticipated event for the Sabres and their fans. While he still has collegiate eligibility, it is very likely Levi turns pro. If his collegiate career were to end today, Levi will have finished with the second highest save percentage, 0.942, in NCAA history, trailing only Connor Hellebuyck, and one spot ahead of long-time Sabre Ryan Miller.
Levi and the Sabres will likely begin negotiations in the near future, as both parties figure out the best course of action regarding Levi’s career. Specifically, the Sabres and Levi need to figure out if Levi will ultimately sign with the team when he turns pro. This conversation became increasingly important as Erik Portillo, a Sabres’ 2019 draft pick, informed the organization that he would not be signing with the team upon his decision to turn pro. In response to this news, the Sabres traded Portillo’s rights to the Los Angeles Kings for a 3rd round draft pick in 2023 and General Manager Kevyn Adams was able to recoup an asset for Portillo’s rights.
The Sabres need to approach this situation with caution in order to minimize the risk of losing Levi to free agency. Based on the current NHL CBA under Article 8.6(c), NHL teams only have the rights to drafted collegiate players for a certain amount of time. The rules of the CBA, outlined in Article 8.6, regarding collegiate players are outlined below:
(c) College Players.
- (i) If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19 is a bona fide college student at the time of his selection in the Entry Draft, or becomes a bona fide college student prior to the first June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft, and remains a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain the exclusive right of negotiation for his services through and including the August 15 following the graduation of his college class.
- (ii) If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19 is a bona fide college student at the time of his selection in the Entry Draft, or becomes a bona fide college student prior to the first June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft, and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the later of: (a) the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft, or (b) thirty (30) days after NHL Central Registry receives notice that the Player is no longer a bona fide college student; provided that if the Player ceases to be a bona fide college student on or after January 1 of an academic year and the Player: (1) is in his fourth year of college and has commenced his fourth year of NCAA eligibility, or (2) is in his fourth year of college and is scheduled to graduate from college at the end of his fourth year, then in the circumstances described in (1) or (2), the Club shall retain the exclusive right of negotiation for such Player’s services through and including the August 15 following the date on which he ceases to be a bona fide college student. The Club need not make a Bona Fide Offer to such Player to retain such rights.
The Sabres have lost a collegiate goaltender to free agency in recent years, so it is likely that ensuring Levi’s signature is a high priority for the organization. In 2017, the Sabres lost 2013 draft pick Cal Peterson to the Los Angeles Kings in free agency when the Sabres’ exclusive rights of Peterson expired. Peterson went on to play five seasons with the Kings and is currently playing for the Kings AHL affiliate. Similarly, in 2016, the Sabres traded for the rights of forward Jimmy Vesey, who ultimately chose to not sign with the team and became a free agent, signing with the New York Rangers.Upon his decision to not sign with the Sabres, Vesey played three seasons for the Rangers before ending up back with the Sabres for the 2019-20 season. After moving around several teams, Vesey is currently a forward for the Rangers.
While that highlights the worst case scenario, there is nothing to suggest that Levi will not sign with the Sabres upon the completion of his collegiate career. As it stands, Levi and the Sabres appear to be faced with three options: (1) Levi could return to school for his senior season, (2) Levi could sign his Entry Level Contract (“ELC”) beginning in 2023-24, with an option for an Amateur Tryout Contract (“ATO”) with Rochester, or (3) Levi could sign his ELC beginning in 2022-23. As it stands, it appears that option 2 may be the most common for players similarly situated to Levi. Signing his ELC to begin in 2023-24, with an ATO for the rest of the season in Rochester, would allow Levi to gain professional experience in the AHL without burning a year off of his ELC. The best option for Levi would likely be option 3, which would allow him to burn a year off of his ELC and get one step closer to free agency and a more significant pay day. Option 3 would also allow Levi to potentially get NHL experience prior to the completion of the 2022-23 regular season. While all of these options will likely be discussed as negotiations between the Sabres and Levi progress, it appears that both sides have the goal of Levi signing with the Sabres.
There will be more information regarding this situation in the coming days and the Sabres hope to have Levi signed with the organization as quickly as possible. The Sabres have a track record of losing high quality NCAA prospects to free agency or the proactive decision to not sign with the organization. However, the organization appears to be in an upward trajectory and players are more likely to sign. The Sabres are currently in a similar situation with Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnson. In an ideal world the Sabres will be able to sign both with the opportunity to play in Rochester before the season ends. It will be interesting to see how negotiations between the Sabres and Levi go and whether Levi will make his professional debut for the Sabres organization before the completion of the 2022-23 season.
Featured image retrieved from: https://nuhuskies.com/sports/mens-ice-hockey/roster/devon-levi/7734
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