Wild rookie Jordan Greenway didn’t immediately begin to pump the net with pucks or draw a string of penalties with his speed.
But what did seem different as soon as coach Bruce Boudreau removed Greenway from center during the action Thursday and placed him on the wing next to veterans Eric Staal and Jason Zucker was Greenway’s confidence — a change in comfort level that helped the Wild rally for its first win of the season.
“He started to play,” Staal said. “Less thinking, more playing the game — reacting — and that’s so much what this game is about. You get caught up a lot of times in video and positioning and all that stuff everybody likes to talk about. But at the end of the day, you gotta react and have instinct and play the game. Second and third periods he did that, and he was effective.”
Greenway still could return to the middle at some point, but he remained on the wing next to Staal and Zucker to start Saturday’s game against the Hurricanes. And this assignment could end up helping his development at center since it gives him the chance to get a better feel for the league while also studying an established pro like Staal.
“Winger takes not the pressure but the bigger role off my plate, and I can just kind of find my game,” Greenway said. “Play a little more free, and I’m playing with two players who obviously have had great careers. So I can learn a lot from them.”
Boudreau noticed that Greenway was getting bogged down by overthinking, and releasing him from the responsibilities of center rejuvenated him. Greenway helped set up the Wild’s second goal in the 4-3 overtime win over the Blackhawks, feeding the puck to Staal, who set up Zucker for the shot.
“He excelled after the first period,” Boudreau said.
Greenway’s move to the wing early in his first full-length season in the NHL isn’t unusual; settling in at center is regarded as one of the toughest transitions a pro can make, and it can take time to find a rhythm — as Staal can attest. As a youngster with the Hurricanes, he watched former teammates Rod Brind’Amour and Ron Francis to carve out a niche.
“You have to be good at both ends,” Staal said. “You have to defend well. You can’t be a hazard in your own end. You have to make sure you’re in the right position defensively, and you gotta try and generate and be a distributor for your wingers. You gotta be good on faceoffs. It’s just a lot of smaller parts of the game that you need to be effective with.
“ … That comes with time and experience. It comes with repetition. If he ends up being a center long-term, he’ll do just fine.”
Although only a handful of players from the 2006 Stanley Cup champion squad that Staal starred on in Carolina are still active players, a few others are still involved with the league — like Brind’Amour, who just started his first season as coach of the Hurricanes.
“It is weird,” Staal said. “It is, for sure. I’m fortunate enough to play a long time, so that’s going to happen if you’re in the league for a long time. There’s so many different people in this hockey world, but I’m happy for Rod. Rod’s one of the best guys I know, and he’s a committed person and he’s going to do well as a head coach.”
Center Joel Eriksson Ek will miss about a week because of a lower-body injury suffered Thursday. “He plays hard, and that’s what happens when he plays hard,” Boudreau said.
Through three games, Eriksson Ek averaged 11 minutes, 43 seconds of ice time and was moved back to his natural position at center against the Blackhawks because of his work on the forecheck in the first period.
In his absence Saturday, the Wild shifted Eric Fehr to the middle of the third line. Matt Hendricks anchored the fourth.
Boudreau wasn’t sure if Eriksson Ek would skate during the week.