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Leafs' assistant coaches shake up same old, same old

With the entire team watching on, Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach Greg Cronin barked out a few set plays in a thick Boston accent for them to try out of the faceoff circle.

"This is the Sedin play," Cronin said as he skated toward the side of the net, instructing players to fire a backhand pass into the slot. "Those two like to do this a lot."

Moments later, captain Dion Phaneuf hammered the first of those passes into the back of the net.

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It was just one of the teaching moments Tuesday, and the type of thing that head coach Ron Wilson's new assistants, Cronin and Scott Gordon, have been using more and more over the past few days as training camp winds down.

Hand-picked by general manager Brian Burke to replace Tim Hunter and Keith Acton last June when he felt the coaching staff was getting "stale," Cronin and Gordon are now helping implement a new system for a team that has struggled badly on both special teams throughout Wilson's tenure.

Several players said Tuesday they felt the new voices – and new ideas – have provided a boost so far in training camp.

"Cronin's an intense guy," said winger Mike Brown, who played under both coaches for the U.S. team at the world championships in the spring. "He's there to pick up the guys. I've noticed already so far he's got that spark; he's kind of an in-your-face guy so he gets you going. Gordon's a great coach. They both know a lot about the game. I was loving it when they got hired here."

Chief among the duties the revamped coaching staff has is to fix Toronto's penalty kill, which was 28th in the NHL last season and dead last in both 2009-10 and 2008-09.

So far in camp, Wilson and Co. are attempting to accomplish that by using all four penalty killers to clog the neutral zone, making it more difficult for teams to enter their zone when playing with the man advantage.

While no one coach will take credit for trying to fix the organization's glaring trouble spot, Cronin has been known in hockey circles as a PK guru since he led the New York Islanders' farm team to a league record 90.7-per-cent kill rate in 2003-04.

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"Hopefully this is the year where we figure it out," Brown said.

What Toronto won't become is a trapping team, as both new coaches have long used a similar aggressive, fore-checking style that Burke and Wilson continue to want the Leafs to play.

Gordon, however, said they were encouraged to bring in new ideas, with Wilson instructing them to watch plenty of video of last season's team and "come in with their own perspectives" before they met as a group.

"We took that and brought it down to Ron's house in August to talk about the different things that we saw," Gordon said. "Whether it was good or bad. We pieced everything together, between Greg, myself and what they were doing last year.

"There were some things that the Leafs did a great job at last year, but there were areas where that [philosophy]could be applied in different situations to make them even better."

No one on Toronto's coaching staff wanted to go into many specifics Tuesday as to what, precisely, will change in their overall philosophy this season. A little mystery is considered important, especially with so much on the line – including Wilson's job – should they miss the playoffs a seventh consecutive season.

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What the newcomers did say is that their "tweaks" should make the Leafs a more difficult team to play against as they attempt to use the group's youth and speed to win more games than a season ago.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we're a fast team," Gordon said. "Our ability to pressure the puck is going to be key for us. That's going to be an all the time thing. We have to be able to take advantage of our skating and put the opposition on their heels. If we can do that, that's going to be what makes it work for us."

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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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