TORONTO - The seeds started being planted at Ron Wilson's off-season home in South Carolina.
That's where the Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff gathered for a couple days last month to not only try and chart a way back to the playoffs for the team, but also to get to know one another.
With new assistants Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin joining Wilson's staff in June, it was an important exercise. There was golf, a few nice meals and all kinds of hockey talk.
"It was just a sharing of ideas," Cronin said Saturday at training camp. "I think that there's enough hockey knowledge that gets kicked around those rooms that you can come up with some pretty good ideas."
The changes made behind the Leafs bench could end up being almost as important as any personnel move made by general manager Brian Burke over the summer. In explaining the rationale for replacing Tim Hunter and Keith Acton, Burke said he thought the coaching staff had grown "stale."
Gordon and Cronin each bring a wealth of experience to the position—at every level from NCAA to the AHL and NHL—but expect it to take some time to carve out their own niche alongside Rob Zettler, the lone holdover assistant.
For example, no one has specifically been assigned the task of improving the penalty kill, which has been ranked no higher than 26th during Wilson's three seasons in Toronto.
At least in the beginning, all aspects of the game will be handled by committee. The staff will grow and evolve together.
"I think every coach has some philosophies and beliefs," said Gordon. "You've got to try to find what works for you that works for the group. You can't jam everything home that you believe in to make yourself happy—everything's got to kind of work together. ...
"I think some fresh ideas from Greg and myself to go along with all of the years of experience that Ron has, hopefully it ends up complementing each other."
Wilson's uncertain future has already garnered considerable attention in the city. Entering the final year of his contract, the veteran of more than 1,300 NHL games as a head coach is under considerable pressure to get the Leafs back to the post-season for the first time since 2004.
It's been widely suggested that Gordon is essentially a coach-in-waiting if the team stumbles because of a resume that includes a head coaching stint with the New York Islanders and various big international assignments. However, the 48-year-old claims that part of the allure of a job in Toronto was the chance to work under Wilson.
"I came here to be an assistant coach and take a step back," said Gordon. "If anything, one of our goals should be that obviously Ron does come back (in 2012-13). I enjoy working with him, I enjoy his company and for me I want it to be a situation where hopefully we're here for years down the road."
Cronin made it clear to Wilson during a "blunt" interview for the Leafs job that it wasn't a position he desperately needed. He had previously turned down other NHL offers and was more than happy to continue coaching at Northeastern University in his hometown of Boston.
The one thing that ultimately sold him on the Leafs was that it was clear he would be given a chance to make an impact in a dressing room where the oldest player is 30.
With an extensive background at the NCAA and U.S. developmental team level, Cronin loves nothing more than coaching young players. Part of his personal philosophy is taking time to get to know each of them off the ice.
"You coach the person first and then you coach the player," he said. "If you don't know the person, you're never going to get to the guy under the helmet, it's not going to happen. You get that opportunity here (in the NHL) because you develop relationships where kids share information back and forth and it's not with a real hidden agenda, it's pretty pure.
"And then you get to know what buttons you can push to try and get that guy to the next level."
Gordon and Cronin each patrolled a bench during scrimmages on Saturday as the Leafs took the ice for the first time at training camp. With 70 players in camp and numerous other staff members on hand, they're still making some introductions.
One of the major discussion points the coaches kept coming back to during their retreat at Wilson's house was the importance of having a team with an identity—something everyone will be working towards as the regular season draws closer.
"I think the identity's going to evolve over the next month or two," said Cronin. "That's what we were trying to gather from that meeting down in South Carolina: 'What are we right now? Where dowe want to go with this group? And what can we do as a staff to assist in that development?'"
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