The perpetually rebuilding Sisyphean Sabres, without a playoff appearance since 2011 (this is not a typo), on Thursday will make their first visit of the season to Causeway Street.
The following night, Buffalo’s top minor league affiliate, AHL Rochester, will play host to the Charlotte Checkers.
If you’re looking for Devon Levi, the former Northeastern goalie who bolted Huntington Avenue last spring after his sophomore season to make his debut with the Sabres (5-2-0 in seven starts), he’ll be in Rochester.
After an uneven first quarter (3-4-1/3.73/.876), the 21-year-old Levi on Tuesday was shipped to the Americans for his first taste of life in the minors. The move came less than 24 hours after the Sabres put an impressive 5-1 smack on the high-riding Rangers at Madison Square Garden, where the towering Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (this also is not a typo) turned back 25 shots and improved to 6-3-1.
Suddenly, it’s the 24-year-old Luukkonen (6 feet 5 inches, 218 pounds) who once more appears to be the franchise’s emerging No. 1, while Levi is stuck somewhere in between.
“This is just a part of my journey,” Levi told the Buffalo News soon after arriving at his new work site, some seven hours west of Matthews Arena. “I take this as an opportunity to go back up, not [just] go back up to the NHL, but to take my game to another level.”
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams told reporters the day before in Buffalo that it was a move “we have the luxury and the ability to do right now.”
Luxury is a bit of a stretch, with the Sabres at the time 10-10-2 and trying to shimmy their way ahead of a thick mix of contenders for a wild-card spot in the East. But it’s the right move, and not to be unexpected, because it’s the rare goalie who can step right from the college crease and master that 24 square feet of NHL net. Even more amazing was Tom Barrasso going straight from Acton-Boxborough High to full-time, stellar work for the Sabres in October 1983, with no visit to the minors.
Here in the Hockey East region, we’ve seen a number of goaltenders in recent years leave college after two or three seasons, like Levi, for their run at the big time. It’s proved not to be a farfetched concept, but it comes with the caveat that it usually requires varying degrees of game-building in the AHL.
▪ Jeremy Swayman, Bruins — Not an express train to Boston, but a fairly straight, fast track. Turned pro, age 21, in the summer of 2020 after three seasons at Maine and made his Bruins debut after only a nine-game tuneup with Providence. Was 23 when he became Linus Ullmark’s full-time hug-buddy in the 2021-22 once Tuukka Rask retired.
▪ Thatcher Demko, Vancouver — Now the Canucks’ workhorse at 27, turned pro at 20 after playing three seasons for Jerry York at Boston College. Grinded through two-plus seasons at AHL Utica, 107 games, before landing full-time work with the Canucks as he approached his 24th birthday.
▪ Jake Oettinger, Dallas — Turned 20 during his third and final season with Boston University, signed with Stars, played 2019-20 with AHL Texas prior to making his NHL debut in the playoffs. Only 22, with 54 AHL games, when he took over as the franchise No. 1.
▪ Spencer Knight, Florida — Only 20 when he left BC in the spring of 2021. Appeared to have it all figured out from the start. Was a career 23-9-3 with brief AHL hours logged, when he left the Panthers’ lineup last season and entered the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program. He’s back plugging away in AHL Charlotte and could face Levi Friday night.
▪ Jonathan Quick, NY Rangers — Now 37 and on a revival tour with the Rangers, departed UMass after two seasons, age 21, in the spring of 2007. Rookie pro season included 57 games across the ECHL and AHL and another 14 in AHL Manchester the next season before he became the Kings’ No. 1 at 22.
▪ Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg — Was 21 when he launched his pro career, following two seasons at UMass Lowell, where he won 38 of 53 starts. Played in 88 AHL games across a season and a half. Yet to turn 23 when he ascended to the No. 1 starter’s spot.
As Levi found out in short order this season, no amount of game management from the bench or on-ice support from teammates can hide the holes in a goalie’s game at the NHL level. Stepping down to the AHL will allow Levi that luxury of buttoning up his game without the pressure of having to win, a pressure especially high for a Buffalo franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since the spring of 2007 (yep, also not a typo).
It’s much the same for defensemen. The Bruins liked a lot of what they saw of first-year pro Mason Lohrei in his recent 10 games with the varsity, but he showed he needed to tighten gaps, and make better puckhandling and passing decisions. The missing pieces were evident. Goalies are fed the games, and shots, through a firehose. The pressure is only slightly less for defensemen.
Rookie forwards can be mixed in to a group of 12, allowing coaches more chances to pick matchups (especially on home ice) and find smart, supporting linemates. Matt Poitras and Johnny Beecher remain with the Bruins and coach Jim Montgomery on many shifts can even out the ice for them. Goalies and defensemen always have the game running downhill in their direction.
The quick, clever Levi could be back soon, but for now the puck, and all the pressure, will funnel toward Luukkonen and journeyman Eric Comrie, once Brandon Carlo’s teammate at WHL Tri-City. It’s not where Levi wants to be, but history has shown that the AHL can be but a brief, necessary stop on a long career path.
for lifetime in hockey
Joe Bertagna, whose printout of jobs from a lifetime in hockey could fill a minimum three of his old goalie equipment bags, on Wednesday night will receive the Lester Patrick Award for his near half-century of “outstanding service to hockey in the United States.”
Bertagna, 72, will receive the award, presented annually by the NHL since 1966, at the Westin Copley Place Hotel. It’s also where that same night USA Hockey will induct its newest Hall of Fame honorees, including Dustin Brown, Brian Burke, Katie King Crowley, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Brian Murphy.
In 1966, Bertagna was just getting warmed up as an Arlington High (Class of ‘69) freshman goaltender, amid an era that proved to be the zenith of Massachusetts high school hockey. Two years later, he was in net for the Spy Ponders in the ‘68 playoffs at the Garden, his stellar work in net catching the eye of Harvard coach Bill Cleary, whose long career as a referee included working the schoolboy tourney at the Garden.
“Two weeks later, he’s calling me, and says, ‘Congratulations on winning the EMass title — I see you are a good student — would you ever think of going to Harvard?’ ” recalled Bertagna, his voice a blend of wonderment and near-disbelief, even 55 years later. “And I’m thinking, ‘I’ve been a goalie for 18 months and I’ve got the Harvard coach calling me asking if I want to play Division 1 hockey.’ ”
Such a tough one to answer.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ ” said Bertagna, in feigned casualness. “I’m probably thinking, ‘This is really easy, this is great.’ He recruited me. I played every game his first two years as a coach. He recommended the ECAC internship, which really launched my administrative career, then he hired me to co-coach the [Harvard] JV hockey team, then hired me to coach the women’s hockey team.”
The overall point being, noted Bertagna, was that Cleary, who is planning to attend Wednesday’s ceremony, and the late Ed Burns, the legendary Arlington High coach, had profound influence on what ultimately became his life’s career and calling.
“Those two guys alone really were mentors who opened a bunch of doors,” Bertagna said. “The award is such an embarrassment of riches. Because you have this privileged life in hockey and then you get in your 70s and they are going to give you an award for it. Like a buddy of mine said to me recently, ‘It’s like somebody giving you a trophy on a Sunday night because you had a good weekend.’ I’ve had a really long, good weekend.”
Included in the expansive list of Bertagna’s jobs: He was the Bruins’ goalie coach for a stretch of the 1980s, including the spring of ‘88 when netminders Reggie Lemelin and Andy Moog were aboard on the Black and Gold team that beat the Canadiens in the playoffs for the first time in 44 years.
Bertagna perhaps is best known for his long tenures as commissioner of ECAC Hockey (15 years) and later Hockey East (23 years).
“The irony is, if you really want to know,” mused Bertagna, “all this came about because I didn’t want to grow up. I didn’t want to do what a lot of my friends were doing, putting on suit and tie and going into Boston to make money. I basically wanted to stretch out this adolescent period from school, go to work in September and you’re done in May. It was as much about as what I was avoiding as it was what I was pursuing. And these opportunities kept coming.”
The event is sold out. Otherwise, Bertagna likely would be working the Westin ticket window, after first writing, editing, and printing the program. “I never did the one spectacular thing. I just did a lot of things,” he said. “I am accepting this for all the people who haven’t done spectacular things, but just go out every day and do the routine. There’s a whole bunch of people in the amateur hockey community that don’t get this moment, but we all just go out and do our job every day.”
Kane makes Wings
a bigger threat
Some reports in the wake of Patrick Kane signing his budget-friendly deal (one year, $2.75 million) Tuesday with Detroit claimed the star right winger turned down multiyear offers before signing with the Red Wings.
It’s possible, of course, those deals were for a smaller AAV payout, or more likely, they came from bottom-feeders that offered little hope of Kane putting his name on the Stanley Cup for a fourth time. With rare exception, aged players of his stature rarely come back to join playoff DNQs or easy first-round outs. Their raison d’être for returning — or to waive no-trade rights at the deadline — is to be difference-makers in a Cup run.
The short of it, for Bruins fans, is that Kane has ended up with a club that has been a Boston bugaboo this season. The Red Wings, who host the Bruins next on Dec. 31, are 2-1-0 against Boston with an 11-10 scoring advantage.
“Good for Detroit, and we’ve got to wait to see how that develops on their team,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said Wednesday. “But I don’t worry about other teams, and I’m not too concerned about the bugaboo of Detroit right now. I’m concerned about the Bruins.”
The Bruins, according to a source familiar with the negotiations, were on the short list of clubs Kane, 35, would have been interested in joining.
This season’s trade deadline, by the way, is March 8.
Pederson was worth waiting for
Decades ago, Barry Pederson lived the Matt Poitras experience, that of the promising 19-year-old Canadian junior player hoping to stick with the Bruins out of training camp in 1980.
As the games went on, Pederson put up points (1-4–5 in nine games) in the thick of a lineup that included the likes of Rick Middleton, Peter McNab, and Ray Bourque. He figured he had his stay in Boston secured.
“Sure did,” a smiling Pederson recalled as he mingled among the guests Wednesday at The Tradition gala at the Sports Museum. “Heck, Harry told me to get a place!”
Harry Sinden was the Bruins’ GM at the time.
But with game No. 10 of the tryout looming, Sinden and assistant GM Tom Johnson ultimately decided it would be best for Pederson’s career to return him to his WHL Victoria team. He poured in 65 goals and 147 points in 55 games with the Cougars and added another 36 points in 15 playoff games.
The talented center, the 18th pick in the 1980 draft, returned to Boston the following September and piled up 44 goals and 92 points in his rookie season.
“That year I went back,” recalled Pederson, “I’m standing in TJ’s office, he’s got his feet up on the desk, his usual big cigar going, classic TJ, right? And he says to me, ‘Don’t worry, kid, the Islanders sent [Bryan] Trottier back for a year, too.’ ”
The ever-good-humored Pederson nodded Johnson’s way, thinking, “Gee, thanks, TJ, Trottier went back … boy, makes me feel just great.”
Later that day, Pederson packed his bags at the club’s practice facility and hitched a ride to Logan Airport, with the Herald American’s young beat reporter at the wheel.
A place in history
Ninety-nine years ago Sunday marks the anniversary of the first loss in Bruins history, a 5-3 trimming by the St. Patricks in Toronto (where the Bruins will play Saturday night vs. the Maple Leafs).
The Bruins, who officially opened the franchise two nights earlier with a 2-1 win over the Montreal Maroons at the Arena, ended their inaugural season dead last at 6-24-0 in the six-team league.
The rookie franchise’s leading scorer was Jimmy Herbert, who finished with 17 goals and 23 points. He also led Charles Adams’s brown-and-yellow newbie franchise with 53 penalty minutes.
It wasn’t until 1977-78 that the Bruins saw another one of their charges lead the club in points and PIMs: Terry O’Reilly delivered 29-61–90 and 211 PIMs, the latter ranking sixth in the league, far back of league leader Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, the rambunctious winger who rang up 405 PIMs while on patrol that season for the Kings and Penguins. A man with far fewer tools in his kit, Schultz that year collected 11 goals and 36 points.
Herbert, known as “Sailor” because he was a ship’s deckhand on the Great Lakes each offseason, later played for the Maple Leafs and Detroit Cougars. He also refereed in England in prior to his death in Buffalo, Dec. 5, 1968, at 71.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.