Petrus Palmu entered the 2018/19 season—scheduled to be his first with the Utica Comets—as a borderline top-10 prospect in the Vancouver Canucks system. By season’s end, he was back in Finland after a disastrous start in the AHL—and as a consequence, he’s taken a tumble down the depth chart.
Coming in at #18, Palmu is probably the prospect whose stock has dropped the most in the past year—but all is not lost for the 22-year-old right winger. In a campaign full of negatives, the Joensuu, Finland native still flashed plenty of promise, and he’s still just one year removed from the two breakout seasons that put him on the map in the first place.
In keeping with past lists, we’re considering a prospect to be any player who is 25 years of age or younger and who has played less than 25 regular season games at the NHL level. This is a slightly modified and simplified version of the qualifications for the Calder Trophy.
As of the 2018/19 season, both Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette have graduated from prospect status.
By The Numbers
On the surface level, Petrus Palmu’s statistical line from the 2018/19 is highly unimpressive. It doesn’t take a genius to see that an offensively-inclined NHL prospect only scoring four goals across two leagues in his Draft+4 season is not a positive indicator of that player’s individual development—but just in case, let’s bring in a genius opinion anyway.
Jeremy Davis’ Prospect Graduation Probabilities System—or pGPS for short—is a similarity-based program that seeks to analyze players’ statistical outputs across various leagues and age groups, with the ultimate goal of categorizing those players into cohorts alongside previous prospects in order to predict their likelihood of eventual success.
Davis’ system has grown since its inception, and now encompasses up to nine statistical inputs—including a player’s size, era-adjusted projection, and point share—to spit out percentage-based odds on an individual’s likelihood of success, and their likely degree of success, at the NHL level.
All of which is preamble to say that the odds don’t look great when it comes to Petrus Palmu. Admittedly, Palmu represents a difficult player to place in a cohort due to his unique physical dimensions, but the data still clearly demonstrates a player who has likely played himself out of an NHL future:
The pGPS report cohort map for Palmu is dotted with busts and fringe NHLers—and one Niko Kapanen—alongside some stark numbers. According to the chart, Palmu’s Expected Likelihood of Success is roughly 2.9%. Of course, it does bear mentioning that Palmu’s cohort is only 17 players deep, and thus represents a small sample size.
A year ago, however, Palmu’s perceived future with the Vancouver Canucks seemed a lot brighter—and his XLS% was in the double-digits. So, what’s happened since then?
Petrus Palmu was always going to be a unique prospect with an unorthodox development curve—as there just aren’t that many comparables out there for players who are about as wide as they are tall. Standing just 5’6”, Palmu has been described as a human fire hydrant by those with a flair for the metaphorical, and it’s his girth—and the low center of gravity that comes with it—that has allowed him to overcome the disadvantages of his stature.
Palmu has always been a significant offensive threat. He was scoring at a near point-per-game pace by his second season in the OHL—where he played all three of his junior campaigns for the Owen Sound Attack—and followed that up with a breakout 98-point performance as a 19-year-old. That 2016/17 total—garnered in just 62 games and good enough for fourth in the league—won Palmu a lot of attention, leading to a spot on the Finnish World Junior team where he went pointless in seven games.
It also resulted in the Vancouver Canucks selecting Palmu 181st overall in the sixth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft—after Palmu had been passed over entirely in 2015 and 2016.
The season following a player’s draft selection is typically considered to be a crucial stage in development, with the vast majority of players who eventually make the NHL showing some level of increased production in their Draft+1 year. In this regard, Palmu’s 2017/18 performance with TPS Turku of the SM-liiga certainly started his Canucks’ career off on the right foot.
Stepping right from North American junior hockey to the top Finnish professional league at the age of 20, Palmu exploded onto the scene. Playing for the same club as Olli Juolevi, Palmu stole the spotlight from the younger defenseman—leading all rookies in scoring with 17 goals and 36 points on the way to the Jarmo Wasama Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year. He also added four goals and six points in TPS Turku’s 11 playoff games.
While in Finland, Palmu continued to be what he was in the OHL—a multitalented offensive threat who does his best work in the danger zones. Whereas one might expect a player of Palmu’s build to stick to the perimeter, Palmu instead uses his bowling ball balance to occupy the area around the net—where his diverse array of skills can shine. He seems to have an uncanny ability to hang on to the puck down low and in the slot—either escaping opponents with his clever stickhandling and impressive acceleration or simply holding them off with that aforementioned center of gravity. His offensive creativity often allows him to create chances by himself, and he’s got a slap shot that’s as good as his wrist shot—either of which he can unleash from in close at the end of those self-created opportunities.
In fact, Palmu’s offensive talents are so diverse that he often manned the point on the powerplay in Owen Sound—and looked almost Ryan Ellis-esque in doing so.
Following Palmu’s second consecutive breakout season, GM Jim Benning signed him to a three-year entry level contract in May of 2018—with the intention of bringing him over the following season to join the Utica Comets. Unfortunately, the arrangement didn’t exactly work out as planned.
Attempting to crack a Utica lineup already loaded with depth forwards alongside fellow AHL rookies Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich, Palmu immediately struggled to escape the pressbox. When he did dress, Palmu didn’t receive much in the way of consistent icetime—and thus didn’t get much of a chance to adapt his style of game to the new league.
By mid-December, Palmu had only played 12 games—and notched just a single assist—while remaining in the apparent doghouse of Comets’ coach Trent Cull. Palmu sat in the pressbox for 16 of the team’s first 28 games. At that point, Palmu decided to return to TPS Turku for the remainder of the season with the Canucks’ blessing—where Palmu eventually expressed confusion and disappointment at Cull’s lack of communication. The entire incident proved a minor embarrassment for the organization and sparked a serious debate in the fanbase about the efficacy of the team’s farm system—especially under the leadership of Cull.
Palmu rejoined Turku and played 29 further games for them. In the process, Palmu regained his offensive touch to a degree—but he also didn’t show much in the way of forward momentum. His point production rate remained more-or-less the same as that of his rookie season, and Palmu scored fewer goals. The year ended with Palmu posting zero points in four playoff games—a fitting end for a calamitous season.
There are a couple of ways one can take Palmu’s ill-fated 2018/19 campaign. On the one hand, it can be seen as a reminder that both of Palmu’s breakout seasons were aided by him being older than the competition—he scored 98 points in the OHL only after passing through the draft twice and was older than the average SM-liiga rookie when he won their equivalent of the Calder Trophy. For a player already drafted as an overager, Palmu started his Canuck career a couple steps behind on the development curve—and plateauing this early could absolutely be fatal to his NHL chances.
His year-by-year pGPS comparisons make for a compelling visual of that fatalism:
With that being said, it’s also hard to argue that Palmu got a fair shake with the Comets to start the year. That each of the three rookie forwards with the Comets struggled in their inaugural seasons suggests that the problem didn’t lie entirely with them as individuals—and Palmu definitely seems to be the one who suffered the most from Cull’s perceived lack of patience with inexperience. For a player whose game relies so much on creating time and space, it reasons that the reduced amounts of those two things in the AHL would require some getting used to—and Palmu just didn’t get the chance.
It also may have been too much to expect Palmu to have a third consecutive year of progression after two breakout campaigns in a row. The wheels had to come off at some point, and it’s perhaps not entirely unexpected that he took a slight step back in 2018/19. That he was able to return to fairly successful play in the SM-liiga after such a jarring experience in Utica is probably a positive sign as to Palmu’s general fortitude and ability to bounce back from unfortunate situations—and the Canucks will have to hope he can do exactly that next season. Wherever one falls on the meaning of Palmu’s disappointing year, there’s little debate to be had about the importance of rebounding in 2019/20 if he’s ever going to have a chance of eventually reaching the NHL.
According to Davis’ projections, that chance is dwindling by the day—and, statistically speaking, he’s now destined for a fourth-line role at best at the NHL level, something that really doesn’t seem like a fit for Palmu:
There are still a few reasons for optimism heading into next season, even if all these charts are daunting. As previously mentioned, Palmu’s size and unorthodox development make him a difficult player to place in a cohort—and makes it possible that he’ll simply forge his own unique path to the big leagues. Davis himself notes that the pGPS model is inherently biased against smaller players—who received fewer opportunities historically, and thus have few comparables available—and Palmu certainly falls in that category. It’s not much to go on, but it’s something.
Speaking of 2019/20, it’s still unclear exactly where Palmu will play. He’ll attend training camp with Vancouver in September, and after he’s presumably cut the Canucks will be faced with a choice between loaning him back to TPS Turku or demoting him to Utica again—an assignment that it’s entirely possible Palmu refuses. Resident Comets expert Cory Hergott recently speculated that Jim Benning will avoid the issue by allowing Palmu to bypass Utica and freely return to Finland for at least one more season.
Wherever he plays, Palmu will simply have to perform better than he did in 2018/19—or else we almost certainly won’t be writing another profile of his come this time next year.