There was a time when Pittsburgh Penguins Bryan Rust was a fourth-line grinder. A spare part shuttled up and down between the NHL and the AHL. He was fast but lacked finish or additional dimensions to his game beyond that of a fourth-liner destined to forever fight for a spot in the lineup.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ emerging star has transformed his game like few others.
The Penguins 2010 third-round pick (80th overall) from Notre Dame scored two more goals on Saturday night as the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals, 3-0. Rust upped his season total to 22 goals, and despite the truncated season, he joined the 20-goal club for the second consecutive year.
And he’s done it as an invaluable member of the Penguins top-six, first beside Malkin to start the season before Sullivan formed an unbreakable trio with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
“It’s hard to score 20 goals in this league…I think guys that reach that milestone consistently are really good players. And Rusty is one of those guys,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said last week. “I don’t know that I’ve I’ve been around another guy and in coaching young players and watching them from the American League and watching their maturation process–I don’t know that when I look back on my experiences, I can’t think of another guy that has developed his game as much as Rusty has.”
Rust transformed his game and his role into an offensive weapon who has scored 49 goals and counting over the past two shortened seasons. He’s firmly established his bonafides as a top-six forward and has become a part of the Penguins’ top power-play unit.
No one thought those things possible a few years ago.
A prominent colleague turned to me in the 2016 NHL playoffs and quipped the Penguins must be having a good night, Bryan Rust even passed the puck! The Pittsburgh Penguins rookie was pure speed and only speed as he established a role on a team that marched through the league beginning in March and ended with the Stanely Cup.
Rust was demoted to the AHL for part of that season and scored 11 points in 41 NHL games. Rust played beside Evgeni Malkin in the playoffs, though it’s not quite the honor it sounds. Malkin has banged up and needed help. It was Rust’s job to be defensively responsible and retrieve the puck.
Rust had five points in the seven-game Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay but was otherwise not an offensive factor in the playoff run, though he developed a reputation for big goals. He scored a pair to end the Penguins Round One series against the New York Rangers, then did the same thing in Game 7 of that 2016 ECF.
Sullivan also started with the Penguins organization as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach before taking over for Mike Johnston in December of 2016. Sullivan had more than a few future players on that WBS team, including Bryan Rust, Dominik Simon, Carter Rowney, Conor Sheary, Oskar Sundqvist, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Matt Murray.
Rust was no more an offensive standout than Kuhnhackl and less so than Simon or Sheary. Back then, PHN referred to Rust as a “bottle rocket” because of his penchant to make a defensive play, race up the ice with the puck and shoot it irrelevantly puck into the goalie.
Rust was one of the “AHL crew” who impacted the 2015-16 Penguins, both on the ice and in the locker room. The breath of fresh air from a bunch of hungry kids changed the Penguins dynamic with speed, tenacity, and a lack of entitlement. So too did Sullivan, the new head coach from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“He’s developed his offensive game I think as good as any young player that I’ve been around as a coach in 20 something years and coaching in this league.”
And now Rust is a team leader with a pair of Stanley Cup rings and a game that has outgrown his $3.5 million AAV contract. Sullivan is correct, it’s not easy to score 20 goals, and those players who do it consistently are usually well rewarded.
With 49 goals and counting over the past two seasons, Rust reached 100 career goals on Saturday. Both unassisted breakaways, too.
“It’s definitely pretty cool,” Rust said. “It’s not that easy to score in this league and to be able to get 100 is a cool milestone and something that I’m going to look back on and cherish that in the future. There’s a lot more to come…”
Rust may have been the Penguins’ best forward on Saturday night. His shot block, which turned into a breakaway goal, was vintage Rust: defensive responsibility and speed, which turned into offense.
A reporter asked Rust why he still plays such a painful game, which is often eschewed for talented goal scorers. Rust quipped, “why change what’s been successful?”
And it’s from that grinder’s mentality that Bryan Rust has sprung forth.
“I’ve watched him–we were together in the American League in Wilkes-Barre–So, I’ve seen his game at the American League level and grow into the player that he is right now. And I couldn’t be happier for him or more proud of him,” Sullivan said. “I just think he’s he’s really turned himself into a real impact player. And he’s he understands how to play to his strengths. He’s developed his offensive game, I think, as good as any young player that I’ve been around as a coach in 20 something years and coaching in this league.”