As a sport, hockey focuses on the short term. We tend to think in terms of 45-second shifts, 2-minute power plays, and at most, 20-minute periods. But hockey teams take longer to build - years, not days - largely because it takes a while before you can really see and feel the effects of decisions in the board room. The 2014-2015 Toronto Maple Leafs season forced everyone to see and feel the effects of decisions in the board room.
It's not just the 2014 trades - although they shouldn't be forgotten. I mean, who can forget Nonis admitting that he traded a self-described 2nd-pairing Gunnarsson for a 3rd-pairing Polak while retaining salary and losing a pick in the deal? Or the Matt Frattin Reclamation Trade (and AHL assignment)?
This year's Leafs suffered from the ongoing inability to resolve the team's biggest needs - a top end center and top pairing defenseman - and continued to bend under the weight of stopgap players like Bozak and Robidas. There was also a poor showing from many of the team's top players, admittedly under the yoke of a poor team. Kessel scored his lowest goal total in a full season since 07-08. Phaneuf still hasn't turned into the defensive stalwart that Leafs' management wanted him to become when he came to the team.
The lack of talent, exacerbated by the decision to retain Carlyle well after the point where he was known to be an ineffective bench boss, rewarded the Leafs with their lowest 82-game-season point total since the 1996-1997 season.
The decisions that defined the 2014-15 season haven't finished making their mark on the franchise's history. The Leafs hurt themsleves by delaying this tank through half-assed measures and trades built on broken dreams: it may cost the Leafs assets to replace Dave Nonis, and the NHL will likely continue to look at changing the draft lottery in order to dissuade teams from intentionally losing games. It's possible that future teams struggling to add talent will look back on the Oilers and think "ah, when you could get high picks and shuffle executives with ease."
But If the Leafs can really commit to the rebuild - really acknowledge that the Leafs are more than one or two patchwork players away from contending - the pain of 2014-15 could grow to symbolic pride: the moment the Leafs started working on winning, instead of General Managerial Masturbation.
On the player level this year, there were already bright spots: Rielly took some huge strides forward, and continues to be the most entertaining part of the Leafs' roster. Beyond the boxcars, Nazem Kadri had a season that deserved to be talked about league-wide. Although his stay in Toronto was short-lived, Winnik cost nothing to acquire, had a strong impact on several games, and was flipped for long-term assets at the deadline - a perfect season, at this point in the Leafs' construction.
And the same has been true in the front office. First and foremost, Nonis is gone. Carlyle too. And Horachek drove the Leafs' possession numbers up despite the roster getting worse at the deadline (though the degree, and the impact of score effects remain debatable). The Leafs were able to add some long term assets at the deadline. Clarkson was tradeable after all. Clarkson was traded. David Clarkson and his contract are gone.
The back half of the Leafs' 2014-15 season was mired in failure on-ice, but the off-ice results were some of the best we could've hoped for. There's a long, long way to go before the Leafs look like anything remotely resembling a competitive NHL team, but the first step is admitting you need help, and in this league, the second step is looking for long term solutions. Maybe somewhere in this team is the right group of people to provide those solutions.