When Brendan Shanahan took over as Toronto Maple Leafs president, he didn't start lighting the curtains on fire immediately, though that was his intention.
He let the 2014-15 season play out in its usual Toronto form – strong start, iffy middle, excruciating finish. Say this for the Leafs over these last 20 years – if every season had been lockout shortened, they'd have been the 1950s Canadiens.
Twenty-five months ago, using the latest collapse as his pitch, Shanahan got the key members of the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment board into a room and sold them on his idea – the whole thing would need to be destroyed. Not pretend ruined. Not 'trade away a couple of malcontents and replace them with potential new malcontents.' But stripped to the beams.
That moment was largely why Shanahan was hired, so that he could cash his Hall of Fame/local boy bona fides on one big bet. Once it paid off, Shanahan put Lou Lamoriello in charge of the day-to-day.
The time frame given for a teardown and rebuild was three to five years. Most agreed that it made hockey sense, but there was a business reality to consider. The Raptors were on the ascent. There was a lot of talk about a new, younger sort of Toronto sports fan (i.e. a non-NHL one). Was admitting failure an existential risk for the hockey club? That's why no one would publicly do so until they had secured the right to draft Auston Matthews more than a year later.
We're only two seasons in to this particular five-year plan and, unlike those of the past, it hasn't gone all Joseph Stalin on the Leafs. That's why Sunday's first-round playoff loss is a blessing, rather than a disappointment.
The Leafs could have beaten the Capitals. That's a subjective proposition, but there is a good deal of objective evidence. Over six games, the total score was 18-16. One or two bounces this way or that, and it would've gone the other way.
One-or-two bounces thinking leads back to one-or-two pieces thinking – that the Leafs are just one or two players/trades/signings away from being genuine contenders.
Let's say the Leafs had beaten the best regular-season team in the NHL and then hung in against the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in round two. Or – on the theory that anything can happen – beaten them. Where would that leave the organization?
With a marvellous temporary boost and in a bad spot. At that point, all the good work done convincing the fan base to embrace patience is out the window.
No one would want to hear any more that Matthews and Mitch Marner are still teenagers or that William Nylander and Zach Hyman have only played one full NHL season. All of a sudden, Frederik Andersen – deeply doubted in this town only a few months ago – is the new Ken Dryden. Why not ride him to a Cup? It's possible, right? ("It's possible" being shorthand for "It's probably impossible.")
Suddenly, the future is now and two years of careful construction work gives way to a hurried Grand Opening. The same people who were recently congratulating the team on its go-slow approach are raging at them to go a little faster. God forbid, next year isn't quite what this year was. At least, it doesn't feel the same (after the homecoming, nothing ever does). And people start resenting the team's mistakes, rather than applauding them as part of an educational process.
That's what could have happened.
Even the immediate aftermath of Sunday's elimination loss, the Leafs themselves seemed to sense that no good could come of being seen to be bitterly disappointed. Rather, they struck a note of hopefulness and pride in effort.
Morgan Rielly: "… a step in the right direction."
Nazem Kadri: "We're on our way up."
Matthews: "… turned a lot of heads with where we were and where we are now."
In that sense, it's not just that the youngest Leafs are learning to play hockey in Toronto. It's the city of Toronto figuring out how to root for hockey again.
Short of a championship, it's probably not going to get any sweeter than it is right now. Because there is a feeling of rationality to everything that's happened.
The Leafs said they had a plan and, for the first time in forever, they actually did. They laid the layers down in their proper order – first, assemble the management team, then get the right coach, then begin piecing together a roster that fits, rather than one that merely hits the salary cap, then put the results in the proper perspective.
Has there ever been a final month in which the Leafs were hovering on the postseason periphery that was less angsty? Would anyone have howled if the club had blown it in the final few regular-season games? Probably not.
In itself, that's a small miracle of faith.
People like winning in sports. What they like almost as much is order. They want a team that looks like it knows what it's doing and that fulfills its promises as well as its promise.
For a long time, rooting for the Maple Leafs was an exercise in pure chaos. Nothing made much sense, even the good spurts. You weren't exactly sure who was in charge, what they were doing or why. You still liked the hockey team, but you couldn't trust it.
All that anxiety has given way to calm. There is a plan. It's plainly working. All it requires is more time – time that was committed from the start.
So while the Toronto Maple Leafs team lost on Sunday, the organization won.
In the long view, Leafs-Capitals wasn't even really a battle. It was more of a skirmish. Losing it with dignity buys them several years more to set the terms of the NHL's ongoing, figurative war.