Wilson has meeting of the minds

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:16 AM ET

MILTON, ONT. - Dinner with new relatives can be a stilted affair, but the new Maple Leafs’ staff has no choice but to break bread, then break down the team in their areas of expertise.

At the invitation of head coach Ron Wilson, newcomers Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin gathered at his off-season home in Hilton Head, S.C., along with surviving bench assistant Rob Zettler, as well as skating coach Graeme Townshend for four days last month.

The changing of the guard wasn’t Wilson’s idea. General manager Brian Burke ordered Wilson to make two changes to alleviate what the boss thought was a “stale” atmosphere in the dressing room. The departed Tim Hunter and long-serving Keith Acton were also deemed part of the problem with what had been poor special teams play up until the second half of last season.

But by all accounts, the new Leafs group hit it off.

“Ron manned the barbecue one night, kicked his wife out of the kitchen and took us to dinner a couple of times,” Zettler said. “Every day we met, we went over some systems and personnel. On top of that, it was getting to know each other as a staff and just hanging out. We played a little bit of golf and had some fun.

“Scott (former head coach of the New York Islanders) obviously has got a great history with Ron having worked at the world championships (with Team USA). Greg had some great experience in the NHL (also with the Isles) and has a college background (as head coach). It was fun talking to these guys. You get some new ideas and you get excited about the possibilities with our new players.”

Gordon said the penalty killing and power play will be the entire staff’s concern.

“In Long Island, one guy might have broke down the tape, but everyone talked about what to do,” Gordon said.

Gordon added that Toronto’s historic penalty killing woes might not be as bad as the numbers suggest. Toronto lagged in the basement of both departments two years ago, but were 28th when down a man (77.4%) and 22nd on the power play (16%).

“Well, I’ve obviously heard a lot about the penalty killing,” Gordon said with a chuckle. “But I looked at the amount of goals scored against us and there wasn’t a lot (62). But that comes with a team that doesn’t get penalized a lot (at 275, the Leafs were seventh-least times short). You certainly want improvement with it, but the numbers themselves weren’t that bad. By the sound of it, it’s going to be a collaborative effort with all the coaches.”

Gordon appreciated the impromptu coaching conference.

“It was an opportunity to get together in an intimate setting and talk some hockey. When you get a group of five coaches it’s certainly a lot of different ideas. To be able to get away from the office and do it in that kind of setting where it’s just hockey, I thought a lot of good came from it.”

Phaneuf likes Leafs' chances

Dion Phaneuf’s first year as captain didn’t go to plan for him or the Maple Leafs.

But an improved team will reflect well upon him.

“It’s been a long enough summer,” Phaneuf said Tuesday. “It was my first year and I definitely learned a lot. We did a lot of good things to finish the year and now we have to carry that over.

“We had some lulls we couldn’t recover from. We fell off about a month and it hurt us down the stretch. We learned a lot as a group, the biggest thing is you can’t have lulls, because you can’t make up the points after Christmas.”

Phaneuf suffered a freak cut inside the leg of his hockey pants that cost him a month and might have been a career-ending injury. That came just as team fortunes went downhill after a promising start. As team spokesman, Phaneuf was cordial enough with the media and its requirements, but chose not to be harsh on teammates in public when some could have used the kick.

But if the Leafs make the playoffs, he’ll be able to celebrate his 27th birthday next spring in style.

“I know personally I’m excited about the moves we made,” he said. “Just skating with the guys the past week or so, it’s an exciting time for our team.”


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