A.J. Greer plays a unique brand of hockey, and it’s one you don’t see all too often anymore in today’s game.
Greer is a very physical hockey player and he’s more likely to look for the hit over chasing the puck. It’s one of the reasons why the Colorado Avalanche made him their second-round selection in the 2015 NHL Draft. He’s an old-school style tough guy — the type of player you love to play with and hate to play against.
Greer would be the first to admit he plays with passion on the ice, and his smash-mouth style of play is decidedly his brand — sometimes for better and other times for worse. And at this point in his career, he’s not going to change anything about his game.
His style of play comes with the added consequence of a higher potential of being penalized. In today’s game, there’s a very fine line between what is legal and what the officials will let slide, however, over the last few years or so, we’re seeing that line shrink thinner as the game shifts towards more of a focus on player safety.
As a result, Greer’s style has totaled the Colorado Eagles forward 231 penalty minutes in 181 AHL games and another 47 minutes in his 37 appearances with the Avalanche, which comes out to equal the same 1.27 penalty-minute average per game at the American League level and in the NHL.
Most recently, however, there appears to have been a shift in the trend for Greer. On Oct. 19 in Milwaukee, Greer earned 40 minutes of penalties and a subsequent six-game suspension from the AHL for leaving the penalty box to fight an Admirals forward. His tirade was a microcosm of that style of play Greer has become known for, only this time, in particular, it got a little out of control. However, since then, it appears the fourth-year Avs pro has turned a new leaf.
“I mean, it was just something stupid and everyone makes mistakes,” said Greer of the incident in Milwaukee. “I’m a fiery guy and when I see red, I see red. I shouldn’t have done it and I accepted my penalties and that’s about it.
“I’m over it.”
Indeed Greer has moved on, and in the 10 weeks following the incident in question on Oct. 19, Greer was only penalized once in that span. And all in all, since the six-game punishment, he’s amassed just 12 total minutes in his past 24 games, while chipping in eight goals and 17 points. So what changed?
“I’m just playing; nothing’s really changed. I’m (actually) playing more physical than I did before (the suspension),” admitted Greer.
It was a man-in-the-mirror moment for Greer, an opportunity to reflect and evaluate, says Eagles head coach Greg Cronin.
“He obviously had to take ownership of his behavior and that event was kind of a reflection of probably the frustration that he was dealing with...it was a good exercise as to how he handled it and a good exercise and an opportunity to mature as a person,” he said.
While Greer says he hasn’t made any cognizant changes in his play, coach Cronin has seen the shift in Greer’s game.
“Clearly he’s changed his behavior and there’s been a ripple effect in terms of the stability and the reliability he’s demonstrated as a player,” said Cronin. “Maybe it was a breakthrough for him...I think he’s done a really good job in his play.
“There’s certain things on the ice that he does when he’s not locked in and he’s not focused and that jeopardizes his defensive reliability. I think he’s done a good job reeling that in, as well.”
Greer is playing a more responsible brand of hockey as of late — whether on purpose or otherwise — and his play in part has helped Colorado to a 16-7-4 record since his return to the lineup. There’s a positive correlation between when Greer is in the lineup and the Eagles having success on the ice, and coach Cronin adds that it’s imperative that Greer plays as he has the past couple of months for his team to do well. His presence in the lineup and on the ice is invaluable for Colorado.
“We don’t have a big team so he’s one of our few guys that’s absolutely physically strong and powerful enough to be a reliable cycle guy,” said Cronin. “He can get the puck down low; he can shield it, protect it; he can control the puck for four or five seconds, which is a long time. And then when he’s focused, he can make good plays with it.
“He’s physical, so his visibility is going to come from his forechecking and keeping his stick on the ice and banging bodies and getting the puck back. That’s what he can generate with his physical ability. I think when he’s playing well away from the puck, he’s going to get pucks back.”
Greer isn’t letting anything get to him — off the ice or on it — and that’s even more important in this contract year that he’s in. The Avalanche front office will have a decision to make on whether or not to re-sign the feisty forward come this summer. Right now, though, Greer’s focused and he’s playing some of his best hockey.
At the beginning of the season, Greer said this Eagles team is capable of making a run at the Calder Cup. Greer will be a big part of that potential run, especially if he continues to keep playing the way he has been.
“I’m just playing the way I should be playing,” he finished. “I know how good I am and I know what I bring to the table, so that’s what I have to do to be the best player I can be.”