After the pre-season, Canucks fans could be forgiven for thinking that Petrus Palmu would play in the NHL this season. Instead, Palmu will be heading back to Finland to play another year for TPS in the Finnish Liiga.
Word came out Thursday morning that an agreement had been reached to loan Palmu to TPS. It’s a frustrating decision that should lead to questions about how the Canucks are running their AHL affiliate.
The entire point of the Canucks owning their own AHL affiliate was, supposedly, to make sure that their prospects got playing time and developed properly. That was one of the complaints about the Chicago Wolves: prospects like Anton Rodin simply didn’t get enough playing time, as the Wolves were more concerned with winning than developing players for another organization.
With that in mind, it’s baffling that Palmu couldn’t get any playing time in Utica. Palmu played just 12 of the Comets’ 28 games and it wasn’t because he was injured; he missed games primarily as a healthy scratch.
Comets’ head coach Trent Cull preferred to play AHL veterans like Cam Darcy, Carter Bancks, and Brendan Woods ahead of Palmu and also ahead of the likes of Kole Lind (11 games) and Jonah Gadjovich (16 games). You could argue that prospects can still develop while playing limited games thanks to extra attention at practice, but the Canucks’ decision to send Palmu back to Finland to get more playing time would completely dismantle that argument.
Perhaps if the Comets were winning games, you could defend their decision to repeatedly healthy scratch Palmu. But the Comets are a .500 team with a 13-13-1-1 record. They’re tied for 19th in points percentage in the AHL and are 18th in goals per game. They’re not a dominant team that has no room to get rookies playing time; they’re a mediocre (or worse) team that needs talented young players to step up and produce. In Utica, however, they don’t seem to be getting that opportunity.
The Canucks’ argument, via Utica Comets General Manager Ryan Johnson, is that the AHL is a more difficult league than people realize and that Palmu was having a tough time adapting to it.
I don’t dispute that the AHL is a tough league, but it’s hard to argue that Palmu was struggling to adapt when he wasn’t given the opportunity to do so. Time on ice estimate from Prospect-Stats suggest that Palmu was averaging around 8 minutes per game at 5-on-5 when he did get in the lineup. The only player averaging less ice time was Vincent Arseneau.
In addition, while the AHL is a difficult league, it’s not, as Johnson suggests, the second-best league outside of the NHL. Johnson has repeatedly said that the AHL is second only to the KHL when it comes to non-NHL leagues, but that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Data provided by Jeremy Davis of CanucksArmy using his SEAL system for evaluating prospects suggest that the AHL is nowhere near second-best. His measurements, which track players moving between leagues and changes in scoring, while adjusting for age and position, suggest that the AHL is fifth-best outside of the NHL, with the Swedish Hockey League, Finnish Liiga and the Czech Extraliga all slotting in ahead of the AHL.
Remember, Palmu isn’t a first-year pro. He’s already played a full season in the Finnish Liiga, which is also a difficult league for a young player. Palmu had 17 goals and 36 points in 59 games last season for TPS and won the Liiga’s rookie of the year award.
Palmu was more than capable of holding his own against men in that league. His 56% corsi was third on TPS and he led all Liiga rookies in shot-attempt differential.
It’s also important to note that Palmu isn’t a teenager. The Canucks selected Palmu in his third year of draft eligibility in 2017. He turned 19 that year and is already 21. This is not a raw kid right out of Major Junior: he’s already approaching the prime of his career.
In the pre-season, Palmu made an impression on everyone with his willingness to battle for pucks and, more often than not, win those puck battles. His small stature didn’t hold him back; in fact, his low centre of gravity and incredible conditioning made him a nightmare to knock off the puck.
Erik Gudbranson was certainly impressed.
“He’s one of those guys that I really liked out on the ice today,” said Gudbranson after a pre-season game against the Flames. “Not shy, that’s for sure. He gets in there. I think he’s got a good career ahead of him. He’s got a great attitude around the room...he’s got a smile on his face, works hard, does the right things.”
Frankly, Palmu looked NHL-ready in the pre-season. At the very least, he looked like someone that should immediately get top-six opportunities in the AHL and make an argument to be an early call-up to the Canucks when injuries struck. Instead, Palmu was put in the press box while Cam Darcy, Carter Bancks, and Brendan Woods played.
If it was truly the case that Palmu isn’t ready for the AHL (a claim of which I am very, very skeptical), then why did it take this long for the Canucks organization to figure that out? Why did it take until December 13th to decide that Palmu couldn’t play AHL-caliber hockey? It’s either not the case or the Canucks should have been able to figure this out over a month ago and arrange for Palmu to play elsewhere.
The Canucks are going to spin this as doing what’s best for Palmu’s development. In Finland, Palmu will get significant playing time for TPS, who will likely welcome him back with open arms. Why wouldn’t they? Palmu was second on the team in goals last season.
The issue is that Palmu should have been getting that significant playing time in Utica on North American ice, developing his game under the Canucks’ care in the Canucks’ system. It is shameful that the Canucks couldn’t find a way to get him playing time with their own AHL affiliate.