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Peter Horachek, right, interim co-head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, talks to defencemen Roman Polak, centre, and Cody Franson at practice on Tuesday.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

General manager Dave Nonis was right about one thing on a tumultuous Tuesday for the Toronto Maple Leafs: Firing his coach was the easy part.

Where the Leafs go from here, minus Randy Carlyle, isn't nearly as clear.

The good news is they will now get a look at what this roster is under the influence of a different coach, presumably Peter Horachek.

Horachek, a long-time assistant in Nashville, went through a similar routine last season in Florida. Promoted to the top job on an interim basis, he helped a Panthers team with minimal talent improve its possession game – Toronto's insurmountable weakness under Carlyle – to 50 per cent over its last 66 games.

If he can pull that off again with the Leafs, it would certainly help their record the rest of the way.

But the fact is, whoever coaches the next 42 games, beginning Wednesday against Washington, isn't particularly important. This season isn't even important.

It's irrelevant.

At best, the Leafs are going to finish with a low playoff seed, and they've been mediocre for far too long.

The real challenge for president Brendan Shanahan is to escape the rut and build something better. To do so, however, will take some vision – especially given what he's got to work with.

There are two paths to follow here, if the goal is to build a contending team. The first is painful. And the second is even more painful.

The Leafs, as currently constructed, aren't going to win a championship. This is a capped-out team that isn't that young – their average age is 27.6 – and is without enough elite players and prospects to take the next leap needed.

They can't buy a No. 1 centre or top defenceman in free agency, even if any were going to be available (there aren't in 2015) and were willing to come.

Trades are difficult, especially given much of Toronto's bait is questionable.

The painful route is for Shanahan and company to acknowledge this team's window to win is at least two or three years away and plan appropriately for 2017 and beyond.

Dump players moving out of their prime such as Stéphane Robidas, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and Roman Polak, even for bad contracts that expire sooner (if necessary).

Eat half the salary on disastrous deals such as David Clarkson's simply to get them off the books.

Explore what you can get for Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, preferably younger players who will a) be cheaper and b) potentially mature during the time period when the Leafs can realistically be contenders.

And start doing it between now and the March 2 trade deadline, which is a mere 54 days away.

That's the painful route, and it's not so much a rebuild as a de-build – a tearing down of some of the foundation and remaking it around the young talent the Leafs do have, such as Jonathan Bernier (26), Nazem Kadri (24) and Morgan Rielly (20).

The really painful route? Pulling absolutely everything apart and starting anew, focusing solely on the draft to find the high-end players that are so hard to get in today's NHL.

The trouble there is it doesn't always work (think Edmonton) and it would take a long time, especially with the draft lottery dramatically reworked to discourage tanking. Being bad to get good isn't as inviting an option as it's been in the past.

That may also require trading someone such as Bernier, who has played so well since arriving he threatens to continually limit how good the Leafs draft pick can be.

The toxic alternative to a de-build or a nuclear makeover is more flailing around in 18th to 26th place, where the Leafs have finished in seven of the past eight 82-game seasons.

Neither option works without good drafting, good development and – more than anything – some savvy management, the likes of which the Leafs haven't had in a long time.

The salary cap has leveled the playing field – 20-plus teams in the 30-team league can spend to the limit.

That has rewarded brilliant decision-making by front offices in places like Chicago and Los Angeles.

Toronto has dealt with just the opposite for too long, with no long-term strategy to get better other than annually shuffling around the edges of the roster. That produces the team you see on the ice every night – one that gets badly outshot and is bailed out once in a while by Bernier and an unpredictably dangerous offence.

And that leaves them 18th to 26th, year after fruitless year.

Shanahan needs to end that cycle now.

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