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The fifth stage of grief is acceptance. The Maple Leafs are currently easing into it. They came home Sunday looking depressed (stage four), and continued that slide into Monday.

"The writing's on the wall," forward James van Riemsdyk said after the morning skate, while slumped in the doorway that doubles as his locker. He meant it in the sense that things had to change. It came out the way it reads.

At the end of that deflating road swing, Dion Phaneuf had a small, angry meltdown (stage three).

"I'm an emotional guy," Phaneuf said, so flatly it was nearly comic.

Around the same time, someone began floating the idea of a straight swap with the Kings – Phaneuf's marginally terrible contract for Mike Richards's monumentally terrible contract.

It'd be great for L.A. – adding some defensive heft in the continued absence of the suspended Slava Voynov. Why the Leafs would consider it is a D.B. Cooper-level mystery.

It's an idea so awful, only an agent could have come up with it. That's what good agents do – sell transparently bad ideas to the desperate. Even the Leafs haven't gotten that far yet. They've given up, but they're still able to get out of bed in the morning.

But only just. They practised Monday in such funereal silence, it seemed as if they'd laid down ice in a church. Up in the stands, you felt weird about talking, in case the team was eavesdropping.

How Twilight Zone has it gotten in the dressing room? The only upbeat presence left is Phil Kessel. He was positively buoyant on Monday morning, sashaying in late to do one of his now-regular Fireside Chats with Phil.

We didn't expect you to come out, someone said.

"They made me!" Kessel said. Usually, when he says something like that, he does it like he's trying to decide whom to punch. This time, he was aglow at the conversational possibilities.

Around the room, guys were looking around like the stretcher bearers would be by any minute. Kessel was looking around for someone to pour him a drink. He wanted to stay a while.

"I think we were the top-scoring team in the league there for a while," he said. "Now we must be the lowest-scoring team in the league. But I think it'll change."

The longer you stare at that quote, the more sense it makes. Which, considering the source, can be disorienting.

They went out west and played better. They still lost four games. Everyone was keen to emphasize the betterness, as if the NHL was a course at The Learning Annex and the real goal was personal growth. The point is sustained excellence leading to points in the standings and a playoff berth.

The "better" Leafs are the alcoholic who switches from gin to white-wine spritzers. A more palatable delivery mechanism – same result.

We've moved beyond the stage of fixes. There's no fixing this. No three-game win streak is going to change the Leafs' basic calculus. They are not, as currently constituted, a team of substance. It's not the individuals. It's the mix that doesn't work.

You know it's irretrievably broken because no one tries to explain the problem any more. They've moved straight to deep hockey bafflegab about "one day at a time" and "concentrating on our start." Shouldn't they concentrate on the whole game? After all, it's only 60 minutes.

The first half of this season has been a staring contest between management and the roster. It's over. The roster lost.

The players had a final chance to prove they can succeed together. They couldn't. It's their fault, but it's pointless to blame them. If that's the way we're going to go, we may as well just keep climbing into the emotional wood-chopper of hockey in Toronto. Because this never ends.

It's time to begin the dismantling. Make it a general order. The only person who should be exempt is Morgan Rielly, and only because of his age. Get what you can. Then start over.

Through their actions and their words, the players know that's coming. Nobody knows how or when. But it's gone from a good, possible idea to the only logical step.

What management needs to get past is the fear of looking stupid, of being rooked in a deal. The only foolish thing left to do is nothing, while pretending that's a sort of progress.

People don't say this often enough in hockey: It's okay to be confused. Not every failure has a discernible cause.

The coach was the problem. So they fire the coach. Then the team is just as bad, but in a new way. Turn the offence on, the defence conks out. Fix the defence, the offence loses juice. It's endless.

Years ago, I had a car I hated, but could not let go. Every two months, it was in the shop. I know nothing about cars, but it became clear to me that the thief who moonlighted as my mechanic was rebuilding the engine, one part at a time.

Thousands of dollars later, he finally let me off the hook: "Either you can pay me, or you can pay for a new car."

The Leafs need to pay for a new car.

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