August 19, 2011

From NEHJ: Cronin turns over new Leaf

By Jesse Connolly

After a six-year run as head coach at Northeastern, Greg Cronin is looking forward to a new challenge alongside a number of familiar faces this fall. 

Greg Cronin returns to the NHL with the Maple Leafs after helping to turn around Northeastern's program. (Dave Arnold Photography)

Greg Cronin returns to the NHL with the Maple Leafs after helping to turn around Northeastern's program. (Dave Arnold Photography)

The Arlington, Mass., native accepted an offer to become an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs last month, leaving behind Huntington Avenue for what many consider to be the mecca of hockey.

“Honestly, I was surprised by it,” Cronin said. “I was at the World Championship and (Leafs GM) Brian Burke was there with us, and (Leafs senior VP) Dave Nonis was with Team Canada. I’ve known Dave for 21 years. We were together at the University of Maine and taught how to coach by Shawn Walsh. There was never any conversation about anything opening up in Toronto. ‘Burkie’ didn’t say anything either, and I’ve known him for a long time.”

Cronin won’t be the only newcomer behind the Leafs bench this season. Burke (Providence, R.I.) — who first met Cronin at Maine while starting out as an agent — also hired fellow New Englander Scott Gordon (Easton, Mass.), whom Cronin served under as an assistant during the World Championship in Slovakia this spring.

“We obviously coached against each other in the American Hockey League, but the only time I had a relationship with him was the World Championship,” Cronin said of Gordon, who coached the Providence Bruins before spending two-plus seasons behind the New York Islanders’ bench. “We had good chemistry, so that made it easy. There have been similar paths that we’ve been in and out of.”

The two new assistants will serve under Ron Wilson (Riverside, R.I.), a Providence College alumnus whom Cronin described as the poster-coach for USA hockey during the founding of the U.S. National Team Development Program back in 1997. The former Huskies’ bench boss will be focusing on the penalty kill and working with the team’s forwards.

“It’s kind of trendy now in the NHL and pro football; they’re moving coordinators and different coaches around to add more energy and more color to the staff,” Cronin said. “I think me and Scott Gordon were kind of in that dynamic.”

It’s been six years since Cronin last coached professionals, as he spent four years as an assistant with the Islanders before spending the next two as the bench boss for their farm team. However, the Leafs are chock full of young, budding talent, putting Cronin in a situation quite similar to his early days in New York.

“We started out with all these young guys like Zdeno Chara, Timmy Connolly, Raffi Torres, Rick DiPietro, Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen,” Cronin said. “We had all these kids that were 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids that should have been in college or high school for God’s sake. The first couple years there, it was very similar to what we were doing at the U.S. National Development program. We were just trying to get them to practice and play with good habits, and trying to generate some sort of identity for the young kids so they could have some internal accountability.”

During his tenure there, the Islanders went through a dramatic transformation, parlaying most of those young assets into seasoned veterans — a move that gave Cronin some much-needed experience in dealing with proven pros.

“I think when you get older guys, you’ve got to manage an ego and you’ve got to make sure that person has got some pride in what that role is going to be in making the team successful,” he said. “To that point, the guys are all looking for the next contract, it usually translates through the points they get. You get that flash of the me-versus-the-team thing.

“The young guys, they just want to play. They don’t really (care) about points. They want to play and they want to be a part of something. The situation in college is very similar to the situation with young kids in the pros. They’re all just eager to get involved and they want to be part of the team.”

Many might wonder why Cronin would leave the familiar landscape of NCAA hockey behind. While landing a spot with an Original Six franchise such as the Maple Leafs is undoubtedly a promotion on paper, some might suspect a return to Northeastern was out of the question, given the school’s suspension of the 48-year-old coach for recruiting violations in February. Cronin, however, intimated that the decision was entirely voluntary.

After a few trying seasons, including a three-win campaign in his first year on the job, the Bay State native helped lift NU up from the laughingstock of Hockey East to a legitimate threat to perennial powerhouses Boston College and Boston University. Along the way, Cronin boasted the highest winning percentage among all Huskies coaches since Fern Flaman’s tenure ended in 1989. He won Hockey East Coach of the Year in 2008-09, led Northeastern to its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in team history and, most importantly, helped instill a winning tradition into a program that was desperately in need of someone to guide it in the right direction.

“I really enjoyed coaching in college,” Cronin said. “It’s a great job and the kids are really coachable. Everything is there to be successful. The campus is terrific, the resources are great, the player development resources are very visible.”

Walking away from all of that certainly isn’t easy, but Cronin is eager to face the test that awaits him in Toronto.

“I had a great job at Northeastern and it took six years to build it up to where it is,” he said. “It was tough for me to leave there because I like Boston, I grew up here and I love the direction the program is going, but I wanted to give pro hockey a try again. I don’t think there’s a better organization for me to go to personally than one that’s being run by Brian Burke and Dave Nonis.”

THE STAT

In the past three seasons, injury-plagued goalie Rick DiPietro has earned about $1.2 million per victory (11 wins, $13.5 million).

Boyle stays on Broadway

After a year that saw him record a career-high 21 goals and 35 points, Brian Boyle reaped the benefits of his breakout season. The Rangers agreed to a three-year deal with a cap hit of $1.7 million with the Hingham, Mass., native, who entered the offseason as a restricted free agent.

“We all want to be a big contributor to a team that does well, has a good run in the playoffs and hopefully can win the Stanley Cup,” said Boyle, 26, when asked about the Rangers’ corps of young players taking the next step. “When you break it down as individuals, we all want to be as big of a part as we can.”

Boyle, a Boston College alumnus, led the Blueshirts in shots on goal and finished 11th in the NHL with 240 hits. The 6-foot-7 forward is optimistic he can be even better in 2011-12.

“I think each of us who kind of came into our own last year have a responsibility to get better and to improve on last season as individuals and as a team,” he said. “We have to make sure we, as athletes, are in top shape and ready to perform at the highest level.”

Pair of blueliners jet to Sweden

While their relocation from Atlanta to Winnipeg is now complete, a few former Thrashers won’t be suiting up for the city’s second edition of the Jets this coming season.

Noah Welch (Brighton, Mass.) and Freddy Meyer (Sanbornville, N.H.) each inked deals with members of the Swedish Elite League this summer, departing North America to continue their pro careers in Europe.

Welch signed on with HV71, a team that led the league with 96 points in 2010-11. The 28-year-old defenseman appeared in two games for Atlanta last season. In 50 games for their AHL affiliate in Chicago, Welch had two goals and a total of 13 points.

After struggling to get consistent playing time with the Thrashers, Meyer will now join Modo, which finished last in the SEL’s standings last season. The 30-year-old blueliner played in a career-high 64 games in 2009-10 for the Islanders but suited up for just 15 tilts last season in Atlanta.

Whitney breaks Yandle news

Hockey fans often find themselves glued to Twitter for all the latest breaking news in July, eager to catch every scoop on where the league’s free agents might be headed. But when it came to the announcement of Keith Yandle’s new contract with Phoenix, a good friend of the Coyotes’ star blueliner got the jump on all of the esteemed experts and insiders.

Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney (Scituate, Mass.) let his 40,000-plus followers in on the deal before any other source got the word out.
“Keith Yandle becoming a very wealthy man by signing his new deal with the Phoenix Coyotes for five years, $26.25 million,” Whitney tweeted.

TSN’s Darren Dreger, usually the authority on such matters, got a good laugh out of the situation when fans alerted him to Whitney’s announcement.

“Wow. Ryan Whitney with a scoop?” Dreger tweeted. “Haven’t scanned Twitter to verify. Nice work, Whit! Now, stay out of my business!”

With his burgeoning popularity and bevy of amusing quips on Twitter (@ryanwhitney6), Whitney is setting himself up quite nicely for a career as an entertaining television personality when it’s time to hang up his skates.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com