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Following Saturday’s season finale with the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs former interim head coach Peter Horachek, centre, said “We have to start to think about winning and have higher expectations,” in a lengthy soliloquy, his last act as part of the team.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Even for those left standing in the Toronto Maple Leafs front office, this was a very tough day.

But it was a necessary one.

Similarly, the Leafs' very difficult and ugly 2014-15 season was a necessary evil, one that will bring some of the changes the organization has long needed.

Finally, no one can deny how poor this team and its prospects (in both senses of the word) actually are. No one could watch 11 wins in the last 51 games and come to any conclusion other than it was an unmitigated mess.

Brendan Shanahan fired his GM on Sunday. He fired his head coach, and two assistant coaches, a goalie coach, his head of pro scouting and almost the entire 24-person scouting staff.

And he did it a little more than 12 hours after their season ended.

Presumably all those calling for action from the president the past year are sated. Even if the real bloodletting – of the roster – is yet to come.

When you look back at the totality of what Shanahan has done since he was hired last April, you get a better sense of why the job took this long. When he was hired in the wake of a late-season collapse a year ago, he inherited a GM in Dave Nonis who had a long-term contract that was the work of the man who had hired Shanahan, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke.

He also inherited a bloated, underachieving staff that was a patchwork of hirings from failed GMs past.

For a new executive, one without any experience in an NHL front office, making sense of how to proceed – a little more than two months before the draft and free agency – was a considerable undertaking.

What didn't help matters was the fact most of his new staff were in complete denial of the very problems Shanahan was brought in to root out.

Oddly, one of the men fired Sunday saw it better than most.

"We have to start to think about winning and have higher expectations," interim head coach Peter Horachek said Saturday in a lengthy soliloquy after Saturday's finale, his last act as part of the team.

"Our expectations have to go in a new direction. Higher. Not [to be] competitive. Not [to be] okay. That's just not okay. That's ultimately where we were. It was the same place as where it was the year before."

The reality is that, before Shanahan, accepting mediocrity had become endemic to the Leafs. They had been a playoff-missing, low-expectation team for so many years that the culture became one in which even a good month – such as before the Olympic break last season – led to puffed-out chests and sly smiles.

For all the talk of blue-and-white disease on the roster, it was right there in the front office, from head to toe.

Part of that was the insistence that they were on the right track, regardless of what was unfolding on the ice, even though their course seemed hardly planned at all.

Add a David Clarkson here, blowing nearly $40-million in the process. Sign a Stéphane Robidas there. Talk about grit and leadership and intangibles and wallow in the we're-almost-averageness of it all.

Spend an ungodly amount of Leafs fans' money and hope. Hope like heck it somehow works.

Shanahan saw the formula made no sense, not in a league that's become increasingly calculated and difficult to win in.

If there's a reason to criticize the Leafs president it's that his realization came too late to accomplish something productive this season. He erred in dedicating another year to former coach Randy Carlyle, and another off-season to the pursuit of free-agent folly, which hurts in that assets such as Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak and so many others would have been dramatically easier to move last summer.

Shanahan's rebuild should have started a year ago. That it didn't is a credit to how dysfunctional the organization was more than anything, with so many on hand happy to explain to the newcomer why pursuing their same senseless path was the way to go.

It actually took it falling apart for many to realize it had to be torn down.

The positive in all this is Shanahan has no sentimental ties to any of it. He took Leiweke's instructions – to come in, evaluate and act – to heart, and coldly went about putting the entire operation on edge all year.

It turned out they had reason to be concerned.

Now comes the hard part, as Shanahan has to lay a new foundation, with a new GM, coach and scouting staff all hired in the next month or two. It's pivotal that he gets this right, too, as it will directly affect the roster deconstruction that comes next.

None of it will be easy, not with where the team sits today, with a hole blown in the staff and one coming to the lineup. But it would have been impossible without someone at the top finally seeing the Leafs situation for what it was: Hopeless.