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Colin Greening finding a fit as a regular with the Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs’ Colin Greening, who since joining the Leafs has been a positive possession player at better than 53 per cent, holds up Florida’s Reilly Smith during Monday’s game in Toronto.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

There's a closely guarded statistics package that circulates around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room from time to time, one that's compiled by new player development consultant Darryl Belfry.

It goes well beyond goals, assists and penalty minutes, and into some new-fangled proprietary measures that the eggheads in the front office have cooked up.

Most players pay it little attention. Only one of them worries he might be picking it up too often.

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"Every couple weeks, I look at some analytics just to see how I'm doing," said Colin Greening, the 30-year-old winger who was one of four players the Leafs added via Ottawa in the Dion Phaneuf trade. "But I don't want to look at too much. I'm kind of an analytical guy, and sometimes I can get inside my own head. Sometimes it's important to tell yourself to just go out and play."

Greening is a rare bird in the NHL. He has a degree in applied economics and management from Cornell University, where he was the hockey team's point-a-game captain and graduated with a 3.99 grade-point average.

Numbers are a big part of who he is.

"There was a lot of calculus, and logarithms," he said of his college days.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing people around the league will tell you about Greening is that he is smart. Smart off the ice. Smart on it, too, in that he generally knows where to be, and many peg him as a future coach. But his pro career has also been quite a battle, especially over the past two years, as he has struggled to remain in the NHL.

A seventh-round pick, he didn't make the jump to the NHL with the Senators until he was 24. It then took him six seasons to reach the 100-point mark, which he finally got to by scoring twice for the Leafs in Monday night's loss to Florida.

Last season, he went through a slide in Ottawa so deep that he wound up in the American Hockey League after a slump in which he scored only one goal in 26 games.

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And he didn't even get to put that puck in the net.

"It was an empty-netter that actually didn't even go in," Greening said. "I got tripped up on a breakaway so it was an automatic call. The puck didn't cross the line."

So when the Leafs landed Greening and his $2.65-million salary cap hit back in February, the expectation was it was a salary dump. It was a surprise when he was immediately placed on the Leafs' NHL roster, and a bigger surprise when he started to produce.

Since the trade deadline, Greening is tied for second in Leafs scoring with 10 points in 19 games. Placed lately on a line with rookie William Nylander, Greening has shown a knack for getting in hard on the forecheck and for standing in front of the net.

Leafs coach Mike Babcock has become a fan. Nylander has, too.

"Great, hard-working guy," Nylander said. "He gets the puck back. Great defensive guy. Big. Strong. Can shoot the puck, too. He's a great player to have on your line."

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Greening's analytics – at least the ones publicly available – have reflected that. Since joining the Leafs, he has been a positive possession player at better than 53 per cent. He believes some of that success is because he is a good fit for Babcock's no-nonsense, push-the-pace system. "Being really hard on the forecheck, that's something I love to do," Greening said. "That goes with my assets."

In hindsight, it's plausible the Leafs knew that and viewed him as more than simply a throw-in in the Phaneuf deal. Given his play, it's also possible they view him as someone who can play a regular shift for them next season.

Greening said he has had recent conversations with management about his role; he wants to keep the details private, but he knows it will likely be a battle to stay. As many as six or seven forwards from the powerhouse Toronto Marlies – including Nylander – are likely to make the Leafs full-time, and 2015 first-round pick Mitch Marner could be there, too. If the Leafs end up with the first overall pick at the June draft, the expectation is that Auston Matthews will be ready to step into the lineup as well.

There simply won't be room for all nine of the veterans under the Leafs control next season – Greening, Brooks Laich, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Milan Michalek, Leo Komarov, Peter Holland, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul – to come back.

In the past five weeks, Greening has made a decent case that he deserves to be one of them. The combination of his work ethic, his smarts and his play make him the right kind of role model for all those kids.

It also doesn't hurt that he knows first-hand how ephemeral an NHL job can be.

"I was just trying to get back in the league more than anything," Greening said of his season. "It's crazy when you're in a situation that it seems like you can't get out of it … But ever since the trade, it's been all positive here. I've really enjoyed my time."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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