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maple leafs 4, sabres 3 (so)

Toronto Maple Leafs' Tyler Bozak (42) celebrates his game tying goal with teammate James van Riemsdyk (21) as Buffalo Sabres goalie Anders Lindback reacts during third period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday March 11, 2015.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

It's to the point that we're past asking "what next?" with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"What next?" was appropriate back in the Salutegate days, in November, when this wasn't yet a lost season, and it seemed surprising they kept making news for the wrong reasons, again and again.

Now, it's not surprising. It's simply an unrelenting pile-on, a nightmare that deepens with each new calamity.

And we're not even talking about what's happening on the ice.

The headlines Wednesday were the latest chapter in a developing, deteriorating story. Leafs president Brendan Shanahan hastily arranged a media availability in the morning and said the team's promising young centre Nazem Kadri would be suspended an additional two games for off-ice issues, stemming at least in part from a no-show to a team meeting on the weekend.

It was tough love – but it was still love, as the team views Kadri as part of the future.

"We expect a certain level of professionalism," Shanahan said. "It's time for him to start making better decisions.

"There's a history here," he added.

So Kadri wasn't on the ice against the last-place Buffalo Sabres, part of a trend where fewer and fewer NHL-calibre players have dressed for either team as the season has arduously plodded on.

The Leafs won 4-3 in a shootout. It hardly mattered, other than another number in the standings. But this was the emptiest and quietest the Air Canada Centre has been all season, and one could argue as many as 15 of the 40 players dressed were AHL-level.

Buffalo has succeeded in being unimaginably bad, but Toronto isn't far behind. Both teams entered with identical records in their previous 36 games – a horrific 7-26-3 – and it's highly plausible they'll be here, in the NHL's basement, again at this time next year.

The main difference is the Leafs didn't plan on being here now, and that – along with all the sideshows – has been hard on those who've suffered through all 68 games.

That includes beleaguered interim coach Peter Horachek, who began answering non-existent questions about his other players when the media would only ask about Kadri before the game.

"[Andrew] MacWilliam's coming into the lineup – I think that's a real positive," Horachek said of the rookie, who later picked up his first NHL point. "Don't you guys think that's a real positive? First game. His parents are coming to the game.

"What do you guys think of [Eric] Brewer's play?"

Horachek continued on like that for a while, rattling off a half-dozen names – mostly those of bit-part players who won't survive in Toronto any longer than he will.

It was Theatre of the Absurd, but then again, much of this season has been like that.

The biggest storyline Wednesday wasn't the score, or MacWilliam's assist, or even Kadri's absence – which should be a good thing, if he learns Shanahan's intended lesson. No, it was in another arena 300 kilometres away, where an 18-year-old hockey wunderkind named Connor McDavid was playing out the end of his junior career in Erie, Pa.

In front of Sabres general manager Tim Murray, no less.

If the NHL season (mercifully) ended with this dreadful game, the Sabres would have a 20-per-cent chance of winning the NHL's lottery and drafting McDavid.

The Leafs, currently in fifth-last after these two points, aren't far behind at 8.5 per cent

That pursuit has become such a focal point that there were even fans with the logos on their Leafs jerseys papered over with Sabres logos sitting in the ACC's pricey seats.

"Temporary fans," their sweaters read.

Others were calling this game "The McDavid Cup" on Twitter, where tanking memes have been everywhere for months.

With the way the Leafs' season has gone – with one mishap after another – getting McDavid feels like an impossibility, no matter how far they sink. There may yet to be good to come out of this mess, somewhere way down the line, with Kadri finding his way and the young kid they draft in June developing into the face of the franchise.

But on Wednesday, there was only more ugliness. And the payoff felt a long, long way off.

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