There’s no guarantee Bryan Rust will be with the Pittsburgh Penguins when the season begins on Oct. 4. The Penguins are flush to the salary cap ceiling and have a handful of speedy, versatile forwards who are expected to produce in the 30-40 point range and Rust is the highest paid of the bunch. So the drama around the Pittsburgh Penguins offseason is set to transition to early-season drama as we await the Penguins next move.
It’s a rusty double-edged sword and I make no apologies for the pun.
Technically, Rust and newly signed Brandon Tanev have the same salary. However, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford just signed Tanev to a six-year deal on July 1. GMs rarely, if ever, trade their shiny new toys. Tanev was brought into the current situation despite the three remaining years on Rust’s contract.
First, Rust has been an integral part of the Penguins recent successes. Beyond his freakish run of scoring in playoff series-clinching games, he added a much-needed flash of speed and tenacity to the Penguins lineup. There is no questioning Rust, his effort or his overall results. The roller-coaster nature of his season, however, unnerved him a little bit, too.
He told reporters during locker cleanout day in April he would like to be, “more consistent.” And there is some truth to his assessment. He also admitted to PHN that his new four-year, $14 million contract possibly added subconscious pressure which inhibited his game.
Last season, Rust played on every Penguins line, with every center. After scoring just once in 29 games, Rust went on a tear at mid-season. He finished with 18 goals and 17 assists, was a frequent inclusion on the top line with Sidney Crosby and on the other top line with Evgeni Malkin. His puck retrieval skills, aggressive forecheck, and improving finishing skills made him the favorite substitute for struggling players in the lineup.
Rust stabilized to score approximately 0.5 points per game over his final 34 games.
Bryan Rust, Future and Fit
It’s impossible to get into predictions for Rust without wondering about his future. Pittsburgh Hockey Now conducted an exhaustive film review of Tanev and came to the conclusion that he unlikely possesses the necessary offensive skills or instincts to hang with the Penguins top players, even in a grinder type capacity. Tanev’s fit in the Penguins bottom lines both elevates Rust to the top of the lineup and makes him expendable as a 35-point top-six winger.
Rust’s ability to flip from left-wing to right-wing and back means there is a fit for him. His salary puts that into question. Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, and perhaps Dominik Kahun could be the top three right wings, which would make Jake Guentzel, Jared McCann, and Tanev the top left sides. Factor others such as Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon and Rutherford could choose to capitalize on Rust’s Swiss Army abilities as the odd-man-out without crippling the team.
Rust was paired most often with Sidney Crosby (511 minutes) at 5v5. Extrapolate what you will from the advanced stats: With Rust, Crosby’s line had an expected goals-for number of 23. Instead, they scored 29. However, their Corsi was a low 52%, which mirrors the proportionality of scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances. All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com (Check out the link back to their line tool with Rust and the Penguins centers).
Luck or style?
Prediction: Not based on sources or anything more than gut instinct, the Penguins will keep Rust. There are too many question marks around the lineup. At least one dependable and reliable asset will make head coach Mike Sullivan’s job easier.
That’s not to discount future Penguins rumors, however, if some of those question marks produce goals. Rust will again shuffle through the lines because he isn’t a true-top line winger, but he is too good (and too well paid) to serve on the fourth line for too long.
15 goals. 25 assists. 40 points. He’ll maintain about 16 minutes of average ice time and again dish over 100 hits.
There is a lot to like about Rust, but his salary and the Penguins stockpiling of similar forwards puts him in a precarious spot even before the season begins.