Pittsburgh Penguins winger Bryan Rust was one of the biggest bargains in the NHL during the past four seasons.
He was productive on their top two lines, putting up 91 goals and 100 assists in 243 regular-season games, played a responsible 200-foot game and contributed on both special teams.
Not bad for a guy with a relatively modest salary-cap hit of $3.5 million.
But that contract is about to expire, and Rust will be free to sign wherever he wishes this summer. And there’s plenty of reason to believe a lot of clubs will be interested in working out a deal with him.
One that surely will be worth more than $3.5 million per season, even though Rust insisted at the Penguins’ Break-Up Day Tuesday that he’s simply seeking one that fairly reflects his value.
“I’m not looking to rob anyone,” he said. “I just want what I deem is fair. Get a reasonable contract. … I’d like to think something’s going to get worked out here.”
That is far from certain, because the Penguins are believed to have only about $30 million in salary-cap space available and have a long list of players eligible for unrestricted free agency, with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang at the top of that list.
Late in the regular season, an executive from another Eastern Conference team said the prevailing sentiment in hockey circles is that Detroit will “make a big push” to lure Rust to Michigan, his home state.
The Penguins, however, still own exclusive rights to negotiate with him, so it’s not possible to accurately gauge just how intense the Red Wings’ interest in Rust will be in a few months.
There’s no question that the Pittsburgh Penguins would like to bring him back, and Rust is adamant that he wants to remain here. The tricky part, of course, is coming up with contract terms that satisfy both sides.
“I’d love to return to the team,” Rust said. “I obviously love it here. Pittsburgh is a place where I’ve been for a while, and it’s a place where I have a lot of memories. I started my family here, and all that stuff.”
Rust, 30, added that his family will be the “No. 1” factor in determining where he’ll play next season, and that he doesn’t expect to consult with longtime teammates like Malkin and Letang before deciding where to sign.
“This decision is based on me and my family,” he said. “Those guys have their own things to worry about. They have their own priorities and families and such. And they’re at a little different point in their careers, and their past contracts and stuff versus my past contracts and stuff.”
It’s hard to dispute his rationale; CapFriendly.com estimates Rust’s career earnings to be about $16.1 million, a total dwarfed by Malkin ($118.7 million) and Kris Letang ($72.5 million).
Mind you, Bryan Rust’s total should spike over the next few seasons, regardless of which team is issuing his paychecks.
“It’s just getting to a point where I feel like I’ve gotten what I’ve earned and what I’m worth,” he said. “I feel like I’ve played to a higher level than what my contract said the last few years.”
Jim Rutherford got Rust’s signature on what proved to be a pretty team-friendly contract in 2018. Whether Ron Hextall will be able to do likewise probably won’t be known for a while.
“There haven’t been real amplified talks yet,” Rust said. “But we’ll see where that goes in a couple of weeks.”