I checked in on the “Trending” channel on social media after the first period of Game 5.
The Maple Leafs were in the midst of what looked like another inglorious meltdown, getting stomped by the Tampa Bay Lightning and fortunately escaping the first 20 minutes down only 2-0 despite being outshot 14-4.
The mood in Toronto, as tends to happen around this time of year, was grim.
The No. 1 trend? Not “Leafs” or “Auston Matthews” or any of the other stars who were underperforming through 20 minutes.
It was “Kyle Dubas.” Of course.
The Maple Leafs rallied on Tuesday in one of the franchise’s most impressive comebacks in decades. Against the two-time defending champs, and facing a deficit entering both the second and third periods, they dominated the run of play, piling up a 71 percent share of expected goals over the final 40 minutes.
Their stars scored, one after another — John Tavares, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and then Matthews — including a furious run of three goals in the span of 10 minutes in the third period.
The mob forgot about firing the general manager for another night.
It was May 11, 2018 — four years ago today — that the Leafs made Dubas one of the youngest GMs in NHL history.
The decision was highly controversial. Team president Brendan Shanahan had just shown Lou Lamoriello — a decorated, Hall of Fame executive who had won three Stanley Cup championships with the Devils — the door after what was then a franchise-record 105-point season.
Elevating Dubas, who was only 32 years old, from GM of the minor-league Marlies to the big club fractured the fan base. Some wanted Lamoriello — who had spent three years helping remake what was a last-place roster in 2016 — to stay. Others liked the option of hard-nosed AGM Mark Hunter getting the promotion to the big chair, due to, they argued, his scouting acumen.
Dubas has had his backers along the way, but the fact he was young, inexperienced, and, well, different — i.e. used analytics — has meant that, since that day in 2018, every move has come with extra scrutiny.
It wasn’t a surprise, then, that before these playoffs started, even after the Leafs piled up a franchise-record 115-point season, there were headlines calling for Dubas to be fired if they didn’t knock off the defending champs in Round 1.
And, hey, those columns could still come out again. The Leafs could still blow this. We’ve certainly watched that play out, again and again — just as it looked like it was about to early in Game 5.
This is a team that has never been able to deliver in its biggest moments — and a franchise that hasn’t won a round since Dubas was a teenager — and that has to try and eliminate the Lightning, perhaps the best cast of talent of the NHL’s salary cap era. Whether or not the Leafs can win a Game 6 in Tampa or, failing that, a do-or-die Game 7 at home is a fair and honest question.
That they are this close to pulling it off says something, however. As does the fact they have put together two of the best regular seasons in franchise history back-to-back, with only the Avalanche winning more games in regulation since the start of the 2020-21 season.
Success in the playoffs is the asterisk on all of it. But the progress has been undeniable.
Dubas inherited a talented but flawed team in 2018, with a porous blue line and some underperforming veterans on oversized contracts. Moving money out to make way for what would be (again) controversial second contracts for his young stars was a huge early priority.
Mistakes were certainly made in that process. Dubas has traded very good players (Nazem Kadri) and first-round picks, sometimes without enough in return. He has also made bets on skill-first players like Tyson Barrie that didn’t pay off.
And the Tavares signing is one that will continue to be debated as the Leafs captain heads into the back half of the seven-year term.
But there has also been a clear evolution in Dubas’ team-building philosophy during his time as GM, perhaps due to something the front office has seen in their proprietary data behind the scenes or perhaps simply due to seeing the results play out the way they have in the postseason.
Regardless of the reason, the past two seasons have been significant leaps forward for the Leafs, as their young stars have matured and the supporting cast has improved — especially on the back end.
So much of the focus with this team, appropriately, rests on the four big names Dubas inherited as GM: Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nylander and Rielly. The Leafs were probably always going to be a respectable team with that as their core; the job in front of Dubas beginning in the spring of 2018 was to complement that quartet well enough that they could one day beat the NHL’s truly elite teams.
Like the 2021-22 Lightning.
The club Lamoriello assembled four years ago, with Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev playing top-four minutes on defence, wasn’t able to do that, even with the young stars playing for peanuts on entry-level contracts. And what’s unfolded on Long Island of late seems to underscore how his methods may have played out over the longer term in Toronto.
What’s clear is that, in successive years, the Leafs blue line has become markedly better, thanks to trades for Jake Muzzin (2019), Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin (both this season), plus a brilliant free-agent signing in T.J. Brodie (2020). You can add in two analytically driven finds in Justin Holl (spotted in the ECHL in 2015) and Timothy Liljegren (the 2017 draft) that Dubas was the driving force behind.
There’s also the fact the Leafs unearthed a diamond in the rough in netminder Jack Campbell (2019), who turned in a star performance in Game 5 with several incredible saves.
Altogether, that’s a defensive core assembled on a budget — those seven players make less than 20 million combined — that stands as the best group the Leafs have had back there since the Pat Quinn teams of the early 2000s.
Somehow, the Leafs have also managed to fill out the forward cast for a song, adding Michael Bunting, Ilya Mikheyev, David Kampf, Ondrej Kase, Jason Spezza and Colin Blackwell all for $1.65 million or less in the past few years.
While the Leafs’ stars are the appropriate focal point on this roster, they now have more help than ever before, help that has been integral in getting to this 3-2 series lead over the Lightning.
Whether it’s enough, and whether the Leafs’ best players can finally deliver in an elimination game, will be answered one way or another in the coming days.
That said, whether Kyle Dubas has done a solid job as GM of the Leafs has been answered fairly routinely over the past two seasons.
You don’t win this much by accident in this league.
That may be a controversial thing to say in this market, given it has taken four years to get here. But at this point, it’s hard to deny.
And winning this series would be the final confirmation.
(Top photo: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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