AJ Greer: Charting a Course

The Avalanche finished up one of the last pieces of summer business on Thursday by re-signing AJ Greer to a one year contract. It’s a pure show-me deal, slightly higher than the qualifying offer in both NHL and AHL salary and similar to what Spencer Martin, Mason Geertsen and Ryan Graves got coming off their entry level contracts a year ago. It shows neither confidence nor indifference from the organization, mainly expectation. Given how things went for the 3 that got show-me deals last summer, the opportunity is still there but it’s nowhere close to an easy path.

Anyone that’s watched Greer over the past 4 seasons knows he has the talent to play at the NHL level. He’s outgrown the AHL and shown glimpses of the ability to keep up with NHL players at times. What he hasn’t shown is consistent day-by-day, shift-by-shift professionalism that will clinch a permanent roster spot in Colorado. That’s the final piece of the puzzle for him and  looking back on his career to date it’s not the one we expected.

Greer was selected in the Avs QMJHL-heavy 2015 draft. It may have been a bit of a reach and he did have some family ties with former coach Patrick Roy but it was a solid pick at the time and filled the need for a power forward. As a true freshman at BU he hadn’t gotten many opportunities on a strong team in his draft year. That continued into his sophomore year unfortunately and he decided to exit mid-season and join fellow Avs prospects Julien Nantel and JC Beaudin with eventual QMJHL champion Rouyn-Noranda. The option was there to play in the AHL at age 19 and he and the Avs decided to go that direction. Given his skillset and physical maturity along with the sorry state of Colorado’s roster at the time it seemed like a good choice.

The roster in San Antonio wasn’t much better than the Avs that year which gave the staff the chance to play an all-youngster 2nd scoring line right out of the gate. Greer along with fellow rookie JT Compher and Rocco Grimaldi dominated in the early season and his 14 points in the first 13 games earned him an early callup to the Avs in November. Remember this was the 48-point Avs team but still, he had an assist in his 2nd game and played 20 shifts a night for his 5-game stint. Optimism soared. Once back with the Rampage scoring began to dip a bit. I’ve broken this down before but a few things went into it. First of all, opponents started to treat the youngsters as the top line, and rightly so, so they didn’t get the favorable matchups anymore. Then Compher got a concussion and the line was broken up for a few weeks. Strangely enough his shot metrics improved a great deal and his shooting percentage was still good but not ridiculous like it had been earlier in the year. The scoring just wasn’t there and nor was it for anyone else on the team. The word in January was that the Avs were trying to get rid of dead weight and call up guys like Greer, Compher and Chris Bigras to try and salvage something out of the season but for various reasons that never happened. Despite that, Greer ended his rookie year with 15G/23A in 63 games and became the youngest winner of the Yanick Dupre award as the AHL’s man of the year.

Optimism started to dissolve a bit in Greer’s 2nd season. He only played a total of 52 games (17 NHL/35 AHL) thanks to some nagging injuries and also press box time while on the Avs roster. With Colorado a much improved team, his TOI fell sharply to about half of what it was in his rookie callup. His individual shot rates didn’t change much, he just wasn’t earning the opportunities. It’s a long standing chicken/egg debate about whether prospects can earn more opportunities if they’re not getting opportunities in the first place but it’s safe to say that what he showed in limited duty was not exactly what the staff wanted to see. The potential was there but the consistency was not.

Greer’s third pro training camp last Fall was odd. He was not really put in a position to win a spot out of camp and it was obvious that the staff’s priority was elsewhere, mainly with Sheldon Dries and Logan O’Connor. They got more of the shifts with quality teammates while Greer made due with more of the AHL crowd. They are older players and new at the time so it made a little bit of sense since Greer was a known quantity. As it turned out he really wasn’t a priority and was cut fairly early, which was a disappointment for fans and especially him I’m sure. His play on the ice in Loveland forced the staff’s hand but only for a couple of short stays, one game early in November and a 4-game stint in December. None of which produced a point or a game with more than 10 shifts or any special teams time. Finally he was called up for a 10-game stint in February but his play remained inconsistent, although occasionally quite good. He was strong in the hits, blocked shots and penalties drawn categories and scored his first NHL goal. Downside was lots of penalties taken and ineffective shifts, when Avs players returned from injury he found himself back with the Eagles for the rest of the year. Greer capped the season off leading the team with 3 assists in their short playoff run.

That’s the backstory but it doesn’t explain how or why AJ Greer has gone from a monster on the rise in 2016 to last priority RFA contract status in 2019. I’m going on the assumption that if he does what Jared Bednar and the player personnel staff ask and conducts himself professionally on and off the ice that the Avalanche are willing to find a roster spot and ice time for him. Many feel that the ship has sailed there and it may very well have by now but I still feel his attributes and talents are something the organization lacks and they wouldn’t mind having a big forward that can skate and score in the bottom 6.

So what’s the deal here, why has his status fallen seemingly while his play at the AHL level and to a lesser degree at the NHL level progressed as one would hope? First of all, let’s examine what has been holding him back from sticking in his various callups.

In Greer’s rookie season callup he was 19 and not ready to deal with the NHL in general and definitely not ready to deal with one of the worst non-expansion seasons in league history. Later in the year the numbers game never went in his favor, blame management if you like but it wasn’t anything to do with him. Year two he was dealing with injuries and improper training and usage by the staff in San Antonio. Coach Bednar needed a player like him to have solid PK ability and Eric Veilleux wasn’t interested in putting him in that role. Aside from that, Greer hadn’t taken a step forward from his rookie year offensively either and regardless of NHL role a club is going to want to see improvement there because it’s a bellwether of puck skill and ability to deal with game speed.

If the staff were sending a message by putting Greer lower in the pecking order in training camp last Fall apparently he got it. With the Eagles his points per game rate went up 56% and his SOG/gm rate 38%. Coach Cronin gave him a defensive role for the first time and he answered the bell there too, eventually settling into an effective 2nd unit PKer with Dominic Toninato. They asked, he answered. Every indication is that he’s mastered the game at the AHL level now. All that’s left is translating that to the NHL.

Near the end of his February callup, Coach Bednar spoke for several minutes on what he liked about Greer’s game and offered some constructive criticism. He praised his gritty physical play and how he took pucks to the net while also saying he needed to work on finding the line of what he can get away with and not taking bad penalties. Greer had just played a fantastic game against Winnipeg and scored his first NHL goal, Bednar said that type of game was the bar for him to shoot for and what he had to do if he was going to stick around. I agree, that’s exactly what he’s capable of and it needs to be a nightly occurrence.

Even though this year’s sample size is small, less than a fifth of a complete season, there’s enough to see what generally happened when he was on the ice. His individual shot generation was weak, which was amplified by being on the ice with other weak shot generators like Dries and Bourque. His CF% isn’t bad, it’s just a very low-event situation when he’s out there. The positives are when he does actually shoot it produces quality and when scoring does happen he is involved. The conclusion here is that he’s a weak but noticeable driver of play that gets used with even weaker teammates. Amazingly enough in the few chances he was used with the 3HM his shot rates were twice normal. That’s no case for deploying him in the top 6 but it does hint at hidden capacity. Since he’s a straight up wing that mainly plays the puck retrieval/net front role his short-term upside is as a benign passenger with the other forwards driving play. That probably won’t happen much with the way Coach Bednar crafts the lineup with low-skill, high-grit 4th liners but perhaps someday that changes. Defensively his shot metrics were ok, a little more quality suppression would be nice but that was in line with his common linemates. The Avs staff should be encouraging him to get more comfortable shooting the puck, something every young player struggles with, and to keep honing his D-zone play. Consistency is going to come from strengthening those two areas.

If Greer could play against Winnipeg every night he might end up an All-Star but making a difference against most or at least some of the other 29 teams is the next step. He and the staff seem to be on the same page here, it’s just a question of execution on his part. The X-factor could end up being something that has nothing to do with his play on the ice and that’s his professionalism off of it.

About a month ago, Greer was arrested early on a Sunday morning (or very late on a Saturday night depending on your perspective) for misdemeanor assault in New York City. Details vary but the main point is that he and Jackets forward Sonny Milano were still awake at 6am, allegedly beating some guy up in their apartment. The optics aren’t great here and the timing was poor. It’s off-season and what he does with his free time is no one’s business but his own but for a guy that’s hitting his 2nd make-or-break season in a row to be arrested for assault after partying til sunrise is bad form. No one should expect players to be angels all Summer but this situation does make one question his professionalism.

One thing that has struck me as odd with Greer is that in his rookie year he was deeply involved with the community in San Antonio and specifically the St Baldrick’s Foundation for children’s cancer research which eventually led to his AHL Man of the Year award. Since then he’s done little publicly in the same vein. I know that took a lot of his time so maybe he’s chosen to focus on his career more or like many players he does work like that sans  recognition. It just seems weird that he was one of the top humanitarians in the sport at age 20 then has had little recognition since.

I’m not privy to any of the Avs locker room dynamics firsthand but there are some questions about Greer’s fit with the team. I would recommend checking out the podcast from our good friends at BSN Avalanche, AJ & Rudo, on Greer’s signing and some of the issues in that area. One thing I will note is that Greer’s interview on the night he scored his first NHL goal was… interesting. I think it’s fair to say it was a little egocentric rather than team-centric, which is fine but not generally how it’s done. In isolation, something like that is meaningless and as part of a larger narrative it could easily be confirmation bias but it’s there and should be considered.

Safe to say that Greer needs to hit the ground running at training camp in what should be his last chance to earn a spot with the Avs at some point this season. With his waiver exemption over he’s auditioning for all 31 teams to some extent and barring injury in the forward corps he will be exposed by the end of pre-season.

Looking back at the course he’s charted over the past 3 seasons there are a mix of issues that have prevented him from clinching an everyday NHL role by now, some of his own making and some not. He turned pro at a young age and wasn’t instructed properly in the minors for the first couple of seasons. The Avs NHL needs have changed massively since 2016 and I don’t believe the player personnel department had a handle on his strengths until recently. For his part, he didn’t really take advantage of the opportunities presented to him between the solid start early in his rookie year and what he showed this past February. There’s no way of knowing how anything off the ice factors into the situation now but it has and will have some sort of effect. At best it eventually turns into a positive one and Colorado ends up with a big physical forward they could really use.

Thanks to Natural Stat Trick and the NHL for the statistics and the Colorado Eagles for the feature photo.

earl06

Scoring LW, punchy climber for the Ardennes classics, spirit guide

2 thoughts on “AJ Greer: Charting a Course

  • August 4, 2019 at 9:37 AM
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    I think to some extent, AJ suffers from being too much in his own head, if that makes sense. Early in the season with the Eagles, he was playing loose and obviously feeling good, and it showed. When he was called up by the Avs and given ice time, you could practically smell his desperation. Sometimes that works for a player, but in his case, it didn’t. He was trying SO HARD – and given only a few minutes of ice time to work with – and suddenly he couldn’t find his game. Even after he scored that elusive first NHL goal, he didn’t really relax into his game. Same thing once he was sent back down to the Eagles that last time – suddenly he was struggling. He was pissed. He was frustrated. He clearly didn’t want to be in Loveland. Again, sometimes that works for a player, but it doesn’t seem to work for him. He couldn’t buy a goal those first few games back. It was frankly kind of painful to watch. It reminded me of watching Van Pelt with the Broncos all those years ago – he just couldn’t seem to get out of his own way.

    I don’t know. I like AJ. I’m rooting for him. But I almost think the best thing for him would be to get picked up on waivers and given a shot to prove himself someplace new.

  • August 4, 2019 at 10:49 AM
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    This article and AJ’s explained what’s going on with Greer. I also think he’ll leave on waivers at the end of pre-season, which is a real shame. He’s better, I think than some of the guys that will make it.

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