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For the second time this season, the Maple Leafs failed to sell out a game at the Air Canada Centre

James Mirtle

As you approached the Air Canada Centre on Monday night, the desperation was evident.

Not from the home team, which had won only eight times in 41 games. But from the ticket scalpers.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, in a tailspin that is now more than a half season long, are a hard sell these days. The team drew an announced crowd of 18,366 against the Minnesota Wild – the Leafs lowest figure since moving to the Air Canada Centre in 1999 – and the actual number of bums in seats was far lower.

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Especially in the lower bowl, there were a lot of empties.

The Leafs had put single seats on sale for half price earlier in the day in an attempt to get rid of the roughly 500 that were still available but that effort came up short.

On the secondary ticket market, at places like StubHub, the prices for some seats were as low as $27, down dramatically from face value, which is the highest in the league.

Lower bowl seats were even selling for under $80 in a building where many seats typically approach three or four times that.

As with many things this season, the Leafs are approaching new lows.

Let's put two things in perspective here. One, a non-sellout with more than 18,000 fans is still pretty good at the league level and isn't far below the Leafs season average of about 19,000 per game. Toronto isn't going to be crying poor.

And, two, this is actually the right move for the organization, tearing down an underachieving roster and rebuilding.

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But they're paying for the sins of years past right now.

For far too long, this has been a franchise that has gone for half measures and quick fixes, and that's what's landed them here, with one playoff appearance in 11 years. Management wisely took stock of where they were 30 games ago and opted to start pulling the roster apart, first by trading Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville in mid-February and then before the trade deadline with more offloading.

But the leftover roster has been so poor, and the effort level so visibly low from the veterans that remain, that it's no wonder even fans that already have tickets paid for have been no-shows.

This is a fed-up fan base showcasing not anger but outright apathy.

As they should.

The biggest problem in Toronto is there's not much hope to sell. Other non-playoff teams at least have some shining, young faces to parade out there, offering a glimpse of what's to come. You look at the Leafs lineup from night to night, however, and Morgan Rielly is really the only marquee prospect on the ice, with most of the rest of the roster either underperforming veterans, marginal young players or castoff roster detritus.

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The games mean very little, too. In fact, the best outcome is for the Leafs to lose as much as possible to marginally improve their odds of a higher draft pick.

Finishing fourth last – where they currently sit after this 2-1 loss to Minnesota – will give Toronto a 9.5-per-cent chance of winning the NHL's draft lottery and getting Connor McDavid.

But keep losing and there's a small chance they slip to third last, which would mean an 11.5-per-cent chance at McDavid.

Such are the meagre margins left to cheer for.

The result of the games mattering only insomuch as for lottery odds is that the atmosphere at games is rather terrible. Players, too, are well aware of their situation, with management having given up on many veterans by trying to trade them at the deadline.

Fans, meanwhile, were only too happy to beat traffic on Monday, despite the fact the home side was trailing one of the hottest teams in the league by only one goal and outshot them 18-5 in the third period in a near-rally to tie.

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This was one of Toronto's best efforts of the last few months; few seemed to care, outside the dressing room.

"For us, that's the best game we've played in a while," said defenceman Eric Brewer, who played his 10th game as a Leaf, a stretch in which they've beaten only last-place Buffalo.

"I thought there was a pushback," interim head coach Peter Horachek added. "There was an effort."

This is where the bar is, with eight games to go in the season.

The Leafs are unlikely to pick up many points the rest of the way. They currently have 60, which would be their lowest finish in an 75-plus-game season since 1991 and sixth-lowest in franchise history. (The 1980s were comparably dark.)

The interesting aspect of all this in the coming years will be how the fan base responds to a rebuild. The lack of hope should change in the sense that they'll finally have some youth in the flesh on the ice, although the top end prospects they're hoping to add this off-season may well be two or three years away.

But a draft-and-develop strategy makes so much sense that it's possible those in the seats get onboard and appreciate the effort, if nothing else.

Wins are going to be hard to come by for a while, though. And Leafs tickets may continue to be a much tougher sell than they've been in a long time.

The amazing thing is that it took this long.

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