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Toronto Maple Leafs fans stand following the Leafs loss to the New York Islanders in overtime in their NHL hockey game in Toronto, Monday March 9, 2015.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

It had always been taken for granted, right up there with the old cliché about death and taxes: The Toronto Maple Leafs will always fill their building, no matter how badly they're playing and no matter who they're playing.

But that appears to be changing.

The Leafs didn't sell out on Monday against the Minnesota Wild. The announced attendance figure of 18,366 – about 500 under what's considered a sellout – was also misleading because many of those who paid for tickets didn't even show up.

Many of those who tried to sell their tickets on the secondary market were also disappointed, as prices bottomed out online and scalpers were left holding inventory when the puck dropped.

This was only the second time in the past 13 years that the Leafs haven't had a sellout, and it was the smallest crowd since they moved to Air Canada Centre in 1999.

It's also tied directly to the fact the team has won only eight times in its past 43 games (8-32-3).

In the grand scheme of things, 500 unsold tickets in a season means very little to a corporation the size of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The lost revenue is less than what they pay Phil Kessel to play a single game.

The reality, too, is that the Leafs collected all their season-ticket money nearly a year ago, and sold their suites and took in the bulk of their advertising dollars back in the fall.

Where having only 14,000 or so fans in the building – which is what there appeared to be on Monday – hurts is in ancillary revenues. Fewer fans means fewer hot dogs and beers sold. Fewer jerseys leave the team store.

More worrying to the team, this newfound apathy could carry into next season. If season-ticket-holders are already disengaged and the team is entering a rebuild that could take years, will they all renew? Will the waiting list shrink? Will walk-up traffic continue to suffer?

Just how vulnerable are the Leafs in this hockey-mad market, especially with the Raptors among the top 10 teams in the NBA and essentially guaranteed a playoff spot?

The Leafs have two key events in the next few weeks that might help them win back the attention of their fan base after such a rotten year.

The first will be when president Brendan Shanahan addresses the media on April 13, two days after the Leafs season ends. There, he can lay out his plan – to go young, to use the draft, to develop – and explain why it'll be preferable to perpetual mediocrity. Watch us put down the foundation for something great, he can say.

Get bad in order to get good, in other words, and be the next Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning or even New York Islanders.

The other big item on the calendar is the NHL's draft lottery, which will likely be held on the first weekend of the playoffs. If the Leafs win it – their chances of getting the No. 1 pick currently sit at about 10 per cent – then coaxing the fans back will be the least of their problems.

Keeping Connor McDavid jerseys in stock? That might be tougher.

Even if the Leafs don't win, however, the lottery will put fans' focus entirely on the draft in June, where the franchise hopes to not only select a cornerstone player to build around, but also to dramatically reshape the roster.

If Shanahan and the management team can ship out three or four big-name veterans for younger talent and draft a Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner in the off-season, it will remove some of the lingering toxicity. New faces will help.

The Leafs don't have much to sell their fan base these days other than the hope that things will get better. Whether or not that's enough to entice them back to the ACC 41 nights a season is a question that won't be answered until next fall.

But if any franchise can withstand a temporary financial hit, it's this one.

And, as always, winning games is the best way to bring the fans back.