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Leafs looking toward next season

The Leafs' 9-2 loss to the Predators in November -- and resulting reaction -- was just the start. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs held a practice Thursday and nothing out of the ordinary happened.

No rants. No players banished. No sparring with the media.

OK, everyone exhale.

It has been a season like few others in the long and storied history of this franchise, putting a new spin on losing like we've rarely seen before.

If only losing games were the lone issue. The drama surrounding it has been jaw-dropping. And constant.

From sweaters being tossed onto the ice after losses, to the players deciding not to salute the fans earlier in the season one game after a 9-2 loss to Nashville, to coach Randy Carlyle's firing when the team was still technically sitting in a playoff spot, to Phil Kessel snapping on a Toronto Star columnist, to a free fall down the standings that would be shocking if only it hadn't happened last season, too (therefore making it less stunning to a numbed fan base), to TSN's fan tweet error on trade deadline day infuriating the Leafs but especially Joffrey Lupul, to Kessel's rant defending his captain and finally to Nazem Kadri's three-game banishment for what team president Brendan Shanahan said was a history of repeated bad behavior.

And that's not all of it, but you get a picture of what this season has been like in these parts.

To say it's been a circus is putting it mildly.

"There's a ton of off-ice distractions that don't happen in other places. You have to be mentally strong here," Lupul said Thursday after practice. "It takes a certain type of player to play here."

I asked interim head coach Peter Horachek after Thursday's practice how he would have reacted had I told him in training camp that everything listed above was going to happen.

Horachek's answer? "Take a hike." And while he was chuckling, it's probably true.

I posed the same question to goalie James Reimer, to put himself back at camp and imagine for a moment that the season would have rolled out like this nightmare.

"No, going back to camp, I thought we had put a pretty good group here," Reimer said Thursday. "Obviously you're never going to have the perfect team, but we definitely had potential to do some stuff. If a team comes together, that's a real possibility. A lot of bad habits crept into our game. We just weren't able to correct them and things just kind of fell apart."

The Maple Leafs' headline-a-minute season has been the talk of the NHL. One cannot get off the phone with a coach or scout or team executive without the Leafs coming up unprompted in the conversation.

We asked one rival team executive Thursday how he would put the Leafs' season into words.

"Before the season began, they undercut a very good GM by firing his support staff," said the executive, referring to Dave Nonis and his assistants, Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin, who were let go last summer. "They fired a good -- albeit tough -- coach in Randy Carlyle before the midway point in the season and declared that his replacement was only a temp. Then they essentially told their players that they are unwanted and proceeded to trade away as many as they could. Is it really a surprise to anyone that their season has descended into chaos?

"On the other hand, if there's a year you want to tank, this is it. So there's that. They could get better in a hurry come June."

That's a pretty harsh take, but one that is shared in some form or other by other people around the league, too.

Others, though, feel this is just what Shanahan needed in his first season at the helm. One team exec said the worst possible scenario would have actually been a ninth-place finish in the East, a team that wasn't good enough again yet not terrible either, which perhaps doesn't give Shanahan the needed impetus for the kind of change that really needs to take place here.

The complete crash-and-burn season instead has given Shanahan the fully warranted green light to rebuild. If the Leafs get lucky in the draft lottery, they may even land one of the two generational studs in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

And this much has to be said: Let Shanahan tackle this rebuild before he's judged. He's been at the helm for less than a year. There's a lot of work to be done. He's a sharp guy and his vision revolves around drafting and developing. His true report card is three to four years out.

What's strange, of course, is that teams normally go into rebuilding mode for one of two reasons: either they've had a nice, long run of contending and it's time for a refresh, or the team has gotten old. In this case, neither is true. It's a rebuild of a team that's actually mostly young but needs a face-lift because there are fundamental issues in its makeup.

To which I asked this question to Reimer: If you were the GM of the Leafs, how would you rebuild this team? What do you think this team needs?

"I think what this team needs, a good example would be the Flames," Reimer said. "They're a team that two years ago that people looked at and thought, 'It's going to be a long time until they're back.' They're a group of guys that really pay attention to the details, and really work hard and play well as a unit. They're a unified team and every night they bring it. Every night they have an honest effort. I don't think that's ground-breaking, but that's the main thing."

Work ethic and consistency have certainly been fleeting elements with the Leafs.

"We just haven't had that consistency of that effort," Reimer said. "When you have that, anything is possible. You might still lose, you might not play your best sometimes, but you force teams to beat you. I look at the Flames and I really respect that franchise for what they've done. They just bring it every night."

The guy you feel the most for is Horachek, a lame-duck caretaker of a club that was ready to implode by the time he took over behind the bench. His reputation no doubt will take a hit for going down with this sinking ship.

Asked Thursday how he's kept his wits through it all, Horachek, as nice a guy as you're going to meet, responded without flinching.

"There are tougher things that have happened than these things," Horachek said. "People have gone through some pretty wild things in the world right now, you can see things happening across the world, those things are real. People with illnesses and cancer, those things are real. We just have to give ourselves a reality check sometimes and realize that we're playing a game that we love. We're going to work and work as hard as we can, but it's not the reality of what some people face. It's a lot tougher somewhere else. Just get your chin up and keep going forward."