How Devon Levi Plays Into Luukkonen Contract Negotiations

How Devon Levi Plays Into Luukkonen Contract Negotiations

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is looking for a new contract with Devon Levi ready to form a young, dynamic goaltending tandem for the Buffalo Sabres next season. Luukkonen had a breakout season in 2023-2024, ranking in the top 10 in Goals Saved Above Expected per Evolving-Hockey. Levi’s season was more up-and-down, although he finished strong down the stretch posting a 0.927 save percentage with the AHL’s Rochester Americans.

Luukkonen’s strong play at the world’s highest level comfortably seats him as the team’s starting netminder on opening night. It also puts him in a unique position of strength in contract negotiations, as he’s a pending restricted free agent.

If you remember though, it was Levi – not Luukkonen – who was the team’s starter to begin the 2023-2024 season. The organization had put all of its chips in on Levi at that point, declaring him the future in the crease. The Sabres even held on despite setbacks in performance, waiting until the turn of the new year to hand the reins to Luukkonen and give Levi development time in Rochester.

Luukkonen Contract

As a restricted free agent, the Sabres maintain control of Luukkonen’s rights next season. Based on his consistent performance and workload over the last half of the season, he brings a lot of value to the organization. It’s that value, however, that will drive up his cost.

Examples of breakout goalies signing deals recently in Luukkonen’s age range are Ville Husso, Vitek Vanecek, and Alexandar Georgiev. All three assumed larger roles in their final season before the new contract, with varying degrees of success afterward.

The Sabres must be careful not to overcommit to a half-season performance, as goalie performance is very volatile. Large, long-term deals can handcuff an organization, as bad goalie contracts can be difficult to move on from.

Husso was signed to a $4.75 million average annual value for three seasons and was outplayed by Alex Lyon on a league-minimum deal. Vanecek lost the starting job in New Jersey earning $3.4 million per year and was subject to an overhaul of the goaltending room at the trade deadline. Georgiev let in more goals than expected this past season with the same AAV as Vanecek after a strong 2022-2023 season.

Luukkonen vs. Levi

After being held out of the season’s first six games and playing sparsely in December, Luukkonen was used heavily down the stretch. He appeared in 53 of the team’s 82 games, about 65%. He got progressively better as the season went on, establishing a standard in the goaltending room that’s hard to match.

The sneak peek at the collection of Luukkonen’s game grades shows an upward trend throughout the season. His January and February were the pinnacle of individual performances, as he kept an offensively inept Sabres team in contention for the playoffs.

Levi’s season told a much different tale. Starting okay, Levi was very inconsistent as the first half of the season progressed. This opened the door for Luukkonen to take over while Levi rediscovered himself in the AHL.

The trendline shows a drastic improvement by season’s end, with outstanding performances in his March recall. The highs were very high, but until he strings together more consistent performances Luukkonen will have the edge over him.

“Boom” games, qualifying as an “A-” grade or better, favored Levi 32% to 21%. This number could dwindle over a larger sample, but he showed a greater ability to steal a win for his club in 22 appearances.

Ideal Scenario

Given where the Sabres were heading into this past season, the ideal scenario is inking Luukkonen to a bridge deal in the $3 million to $4 million range. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections put Luukkonen’s value on a two-year deal at $3.955 million.

His most likely contract according to the projections is for four years at $5.227 million. That would be a hefty price for only half of a season of success, especially with Levi’s contract expiring after next season.

The ideal play is to use Luukkonen and Levi as a “1-A” and “1-B” tandem for the foreseeable future.

The Boston Bruins have set the standard for elite tandems, with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman combining for under $8.5 million. Swayman’s up for a new contract this offseason, resulting in Ullmark trade rumors due to the high cap percentage expected to be allocated to the position.

Keeping Luukkonen under a $4 million cap hit leaves flexibility to pay Levi should he become the Sabres’ best option in 2024-2025. That might not be 100% feasible, but the top backup goalies in the NHL do not exceed $3 million. The worry is that if Luukkonen commands too much more than that, then the Sabres will have to choose between their two promising talents after next season.

If they can keep Luukkonen’s cap hit in check, they can pay Levi and be much better suited to allocate dollars toward improving the roster elsewhere.

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