These days Bryan Rust is indeed in a new place as one of the Penguins’ top scorers. He’s put up eight points in the first six games, a pace that belies the .36 points-per-game regular season average he brought to the 2017-18 season.
But the 25-year-old winger is in a very familiar place in the Pittsburgh lineup – he’s all over it.
Rust began last night back where he started the season, on the second line as the left wing with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. He started as the third line right wing with Gregg McKegg at Tampa earlier in the week and played as the top line right wing with Sidney Crosby in the two games prior to that. When you share the team lead in scoring after six games in which you’ve played both wings and on three different lines, that’s saying something.
There’s more. Rust is also the only forward on the team averaging at least 1:00 per game on both the power play and penalty kill, and he chipped in his first career power-play goal in the 5-4 loss at Tampa Bay. Some of his teammates move around, too, most notably Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson when he’s in the lineup, but it would be easy to make the argument that coach Mike Sullivan believes he can use Rust in more ways than perhaps any other player on the roster.
So let’s not underestimate versatility when it comes to the primary elements of Rust’s game, which has always been celebrated for its speed and aggressiveness – and yes, a big-game presence we’ll get to in a bit. Given Sullivan’s feel for the right in-game adjustments based on who’s going and who’s not, having a player like Rust who has literally moved all around the lineup is a considerable asset. And if you’re wondering, yes, he played the fourth line with Eric Fehr when he began last season after missing the first three games with an injury.
The points he’s piling up right now are great and certainly help Rust in his battle for elevated minutes on a team with plenty of competition for top six slots. They are, however, simply a manifestation of the same game he brought to the Penguins from Notre Dame, a game that is evolving and maturing but at its core is based on the aforementioned characteristics.
Rust’s speed and aggressiveness take him to the same place every night: the net. That’s the piece of predictability that serves him and the Penguins well, although it has also contributed to an injury history that has slowed him down the last two seasons, during which he missed 44 regular season and two playoff games while hurt.
Bryan Rust To The Net!
When he beats opponents wide, he’s almost always cutting to the net, not circling behind it. When he does find his way behind it, he’s not always thinking about working the puck back to the point; as we’ve seen several times already this season, he’s more likely to try a wrap-around.
He’s moving the puck smartly this season, but he’s not piling up assists simply because he’s turned into a playmaker. He’s also finding pucks from the crowd in front of the net. He drew an assist on Jake Guentzel’s goal against Nashville by simply getting the rebound of a Brian Dumoulin shot toward the crease, and he helped set up Kris Letang’s goal at Washington by whacking a loose puck toward the slot. The net is like a magnet to Rust, and now that he’s getting more playing time at even strength and on special teams – he’s averaging 15:43 per game this season after averaging 13:38 last season – he’s showing up more often on the scoresheet.
He’s been fine without the puck, too, able and willing to use his speed on the forecheck and the backcheck.
Rust began forging his NHL identity as a big-game player in the spring of 2016 by scoring twice in elimination games against the New York Rangers in the opening round and Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final, which just happened to be a Game 7. If anyone believed that production was something of a coincidence – Rust had two goals in his other 21 playoff games that spring – they were forced to think again after he scored twice in a first-round elimination game against Columbus last spring and then scored the game-winner in Game 7 at Washington in the second round.
But there’s more to Rust than that, a fact which for some folks may just now be coming to light. He’s not going to keep up this scoring pace, but he’s making a case as one of the more valuable players in the Pittsburgh lineup right now.
Bob Grove is the former pre and post-game of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Penguins historian. Bob regularly appears on 93-7 the Fan and KDKA-AM radio. Please help us spread the word on PHN. Like and share to Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.