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Toronto Maple Leafs are struggling to adapt to Peter Horachek’s more structured defensive system.Robert Stanton

This was always the danger in doing what the Toronto Maple Leafs did in the off-season.

They had an 84-point team a year ago – eighth worst in the NHL – and made primarily cosmetic changes in adding depth up front and changing the assistant coaches.

They didn't change the head coach until Game 40 and now the team is struggling to adapt to Peter Horachek's more structured defensive system.

They didn't change the GM and now some of the main changes needed will be pulling apart what Dave Nonis put in place.

The Leafs lost again on Thursday in San Jose, this time going down 3-1 in a game where, yes, they had some bad breaks – including a questionable winning goal – but were not the better team.

That leaves Toronto with no points gained and only one goal to end a three-game trip through California – the NHL's Death Valley given those teams are a combined 42-18-9 at home – and on pace for only 85.6 points.

After finishing 23rd last season, they're headed for the no man's land that is 20th.

Truth be told, that was roughly the most likely spot they'd end up in when the season started.

As a brief aside, there's no doubt this team has played a tighter style under Horachek. They've actually outshot teams in these five games, on average, and allowed under 27 per game, a drop of eight from the season's first 40 games under Randy Carlyle.

More than adding clarity, that complicates things. If the Leafs had continued as an unrelenting tire fire and shown little ability to adapt to instruction, pulling the entire mess apart would be a slam dunk.

What other option would there be?

If they continue to play like this, they should win some games – certainly more than they have so far – but likely only to the extent that they'll muddle along in the same position. (Their PDO, for those interested in the analytics side of things, is unsustainably low under Horachek and certain to shift back at some point.)

That means they will almost certainly still have a mathematical shot at the playoffs come the trade deadline – but then again, that goes for most teams, and in these circumstances means little.

There are two vital things the Leafs need to accomplish in the last three months and 37 games of what looks like another lost season.

1. They have to develop players by giving them a chance. This means everyone under 25: Morgan Rielly (20), Richard Panik (23), Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland and Jake Gardiner (all 24). That's about it. Everyone else is what they're going to be or is going to get worse with age. And/or won't even be around when/if the Leafs play games that matter.

2. They have to punt players out for futures, open salary space and be proactive in not allowing 2015-16 to be another year where they'll flail around like this, pretending that adding new Santorellis and Winniks is enough. The trade deadline this year is March 2. The Leafs have 18 games before then and 11 of those are on the road, where they've won seven of 21 all season. It's time to wave the white flag and move a Lupul if someone wants a Lupul or a Polak or any of the other expendable 28-and-older players on the roster.

This part of the equation may not be sexy. They may not get much back for some players – and get criticized for it – and they may even have to take a bad contract back, depending on how nasty what they're shipping out is.

But building by increments, the way an organization like the Winnipeg Jets has done, is rarely sexy. It's just laying bricks, with one smart move after another until (hopefully) you build a house.

The Leafs seem to put up a door frame every year before sitting back and saying "it might turn into a house."

Then it falls over sometime between January and March and the process starts anew.

For all the complaints about their play, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are Toronto's toughest conundrums. Both are signed long term and both need a lot more support to get any kind of value out of their contracts.

Kessel, at 27, is still young enough that he can provide offence for four or five years to come.

You can probably move one without entering a full-scale rebuild, but if both go, it certainly looks like a teardown. While some have compared this to the situation Brian Burke inherited in 2008, when he absolutely should have gone scorched earth and didn't, it's really not.

This team isn't nearly as utterly hopeless as that one, in large part because they have some decent youth and Jonathan Bernier is such a competent starter.

You can't truly bottom out with a great goalie there bailing you out every night.

So do you move Bernier, too, to try and get bad before you get good? Even though the lottery has significantly changed the odds of picking first overall?

Or are you not actually going to dynamite the roster?

These are the uncomfortable questions being asked about the Leafs right now, and they really don't have a whole lot to do with an 0-3 trip through California.

They're being asked now because they should have been asked ages ago, instead of signing vets like David Clarkson and Stephane Robidas to too much money and too many years to try and fast track the organization's way out of mediocrity.

The NHL doesn't work like that anymore.

Who should the Leafs keep?

The young core: Rielly, Kadri, Gardiner, Holland, Panik, Van Riemsdyk, Bernier

Trade chips: Lupul, Winnik, Santorelli, Bozak, Polak, Komarov, Reimer

Untradeables: Clarkson, Robidas

Question marks: Phaneuf, Kessel, Franson