As a hockey team, the 2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs are an objective failure. They sit last in the NHL standings. They've won one of their past 10 games. They're not impossible to watch, but there's a strong element of kindergarten recital to proceedings – the most lovable thing about the Leafs is their plucky incompetence.
Now getting ready to flip their short-term contracts for future assets, they'll soon be even worse.
Three, five, 10 years ago, they'd be piling tires in front of the Air Canada Centre doors, getting ready to torch the place. This year, crickets.
The Leafs have gently laid the most frantic fanbase in hockey onto its back and rubbed its belly until everyone drifted off. As recently as last season, they were good for three frothing outrage cycles a week. Aside from Jonathan Bernier's yips, name one that comes even close this year.
Hell, name any sort of story. The entire season has been a vanilla-coloured blur of bad games and stately losses, none of them notable in any particular way.
That's the real secret of the rebuilding process – being bad is only half of it; in order to buy yourself the time to be bad, you must also be boring. Right now, the Leafs are less interesting than they have ever been. And it's working a charm.
How did they do it?
A year ago, with great reluctance, they laid out their plan to give up. That it was warmly accepted emboldened them to bring in 73-year-old Lou Lamoriello as general manager.
This wasn't an ambitious hockey hire. Lamoriello is a technocrat, not a visionary. His signal talent is controlling the flow of information. He controls it by tugging on the information tap until it snaps off.
After years spent being run by people who could … not … stop … explaining … themselves, the new Leafs make no effort to explain anything to anybody. They do their talking on the ice. Well, it's not really talking. It's more of a nightly death rattle.
Since the Leafs have admitted they want to be poor at hockey, there is no evil joy in pointing out that they are, which was the city's most popular pastime for the past half-century. If you don't have anything bad to say, why say anything at all? And so fans have retreated into a compliant stupor.
You can't say nothing all the time, so Lamoriello occasionally goes out into public to say nothing in front of an audience. When he does, he sounds like he's reading out the less exciting parts of a refrigerator warranty.
Here is last week, talking to Toronto radio station The Fan 590: "I don't think there's been any surprises. I think the, uh, vision that [president] Brendan [Shanahan] had when he spoke to me during the summer and my conversations with [coach] Mike [Babcock], uh, everything has been, uh, exactly what was said. In saying that, we certainly would like to have, like everyone else, more wins. But what the plan has been …"
Lamoriello may be the only person alive who can put himself to sleep by speaking out loud.
Though there are no specifics given, the theme never changes – 'We have a plan. Never you mind what it is.' It's only now, 10 years after it was brought in, that the Leafs have figured out the real benefit of the salary cap.
It was introduced as a cost-control measure – something the Toronto organization never had to care about.
But it had a powerful, unforeseen side-effect. Enforced financial parity has made it possible for all 30 NHL teams to succeed, depending on how you define that word.
Though it may be losing, a franchise can be said to winning at the process of improving. Call it directional failure.
You no longer blow the season – you win the draft. You're not giving away your best players for nothing – you're managing the cap. You're not burying your prospects in the AHL – you're showing patience. All your dumb mistakes can look like inside-out brilliance. You just have to spin them that way.
Under Lamoriello, the Leafs have become masterful at reinforcing the organization's new motto – 'As bad as we need to be.'
Most of the players remember the skittish days when one careless word in a scrum was an invitation to a public flogging. Now, no one cares that the team is awful. Some people quite like it. After years spent in a protective crouch, most current Toronto Maple Leafs seem happy to stand up tall and accept their crushing professional mediocrity.
The Punch to Lamoriello's Judy is Babcock. His job is to appear mildly discomfited by all this loser talk. Not so much as to suggest he's chafing at The Plan, but just enough to maintain the organization's dignity.
Eight months into his tenure, Babcock has fully inhabited his new role as the city's exasperated hockey dad. Sure, he'd love it if his 23 kids could do better, but, jeez, he loves them anyway. Even if they are totally useless.
This has always been a strange sort of hockey town – ruthless and paternalistic. We hate it when they lose, but we love the losers. The most obsessed-over player in the organization's history is a guy who wouldn't have anything to do with it for years.
On some very basic level, the Maple Leafs aren't a hockey team. They're a support group with millions of traumatized members.
The genius of Shanahan, Lamoriello et al has been to interrupt that compulsive and circular 'Why aren't we better?' narrative. They sat Toronto down, explained exactly why and then refused to talk about it any more.
The arena is full. The TV ratings have flagged, but they're still decent. No one wastes time complaining about the obvious. And, at least right now, it feels like this outburst of common sense might last the years a full rescue operation will take.
It's still a cursed franchise. Only a championship will exorcise that. But for the first time in recent memory, it's a becalmed one.