Way back on Aug. 1, with plenty of time to act before the season began, anybody who read The Toronto Sun could have had the blueprint.
Here's what it said: "In order to give yourself the best chance to win in Gary's Game, you have to target a few top-line players and fill the remainder of the roster with hard workers who can skate.
"You need, as is always the case, a top-notch goalie and you must be prepared to pay his price, even if it's the maximum 20% of the salary cap. Then you need two high-quality veteran defencemen and four elite forwards."
Look at the top teams in the National Hockey League standings. Most came close to following that formula.
Granted, a couple of teams, like the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres, found another way. But only the Vancouver Canucks followed that formula and missed the playoffs -- more of a function of long-term injuries to Dan Cloutier, Ed Jovanovski and Sami Salo than a problem with the system.
Apparently, John Ferguson didn't read his Sun on Aug. 1.
He paid the high price for his goalie, but didn't get the requisite top-notch return.
All the teams that finished in high positions got great goaltending. Some of them even got it cheaply, but that's fine. The advice simply suggested that you pay the goalie as much as was required, not that you over-pay.
Ferguson followed the formula regarding defencemen. Granted, the support staff could have done a bit better, but D-men are a scarce commodity.
When you have Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, you have as good a foundation as reasonably can be expected.
Ferguson's big mistake in that regard was misjudging the second-level market. He could have bought out Ken Klee and Wade Belak. And he overpaid Alexander Khavanov.
Granted, the buyouts would have caused Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. to spend extra cash for no return, but that's the game that has to be played in the salary-cap era. It was a manoeuvre that would have created cap space which could have been used judiciously.
But it was in the area of the forwards that Ferguson missed the boat.
As every Leafs fan knows, Mats Sundin had precious little support this season. You can argue that Eric Lindros got hurt, but no one with hockey acumen expected to get a full season from him.
The impact of Jason Allison on the salary cap was too high for the return, and there is no way in the world Tie Domi should have been given a two-year deal at $1.25 million annually. And isn't it about time that the man who forced Ferguson to make that deal stood up and took the blame?
But only Ferguson can be blamed for underestimating the value of Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, two guys who certainly qualify for inclusion in the the elite-forward category.
From Pat Quinn on down, all the Leafs now are bemoaning a couple of long losing streaks. Did they have streaks like that when Nieuwendyk and Roberts were around?
These are two of the best team leaders in the game and when you miss out on a playoff spot by a point or two, you have to believe that some proven veteran leadership would have made the difference between a post-season and a tee time.
Roberts had the best analysis of the negotiations with Ferguson.
"He played the card they always play in Toronto," he said. "That people will stay there for less money because everybody wants to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. Unfortunately, he played that hand a little too long and he lost."
The good news?
Both Roberts and Nieuwendyk are under contract for next season and both could be acquired from the Florida Panthers in a trade.
It's too late for this year.
But the Leafs are planning to build with youth.
Who would be better in the dressing room to set the youngsters on a winning path than those two?