It’s about to be payday for Bryan Rust. It’s hard to imagine the Pittsburgh Penguins bottle rocket player of 2017 who streaked up the ice only to fire a 25-foot wrist shot into the goalie and get off the ice is now going to get paid with a Brinks armored car.
But here we are.
The scrappy winger has set new standards in development. As a third-round pick in 2010, Rust’s development path could colloquially be called the “slow boat to China.” After four years under the golden domes of Notre Dame, Rust didn’t make his NHL debut until 2014-15 and scored a whopping–wait for it–two points (1-1-2) in 14 games.
The following season, Rust earned 41 NHL games as the customary injury bugs bit the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rust was part of the young AHL crew that was called upon and got to stick around.
However, in those 41 games, Rust scored 11 points, including just four goals. Though in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoff run, Rust earned a unique monicker as the finisher. He scored a couple of series-clinching goals, despite not scoring much otherwise.
In 2016-17, he played 57 NHL games and even cracked the .5 points per game mark. The continued upward trajectory of Rust’s statistics played out on several Penguins lines, combined with his gritty two-way game, makes him a lineup necessity. They also mean this hasn’t been a Sidney Crosby fueled fluke or a flash.
“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 in May. “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.”
Fast forward to sometime between now and July 1, 2022. Bryan Rust is going to get PAID.
Pittsburgh Penguins Comparables
Finding comparables to Bryan Rust may send shivers through the Penguins wallet. The players who produce at Rust’s level are not cheap, nor are they plenty.
Rust, 29, scored 42 points (22-20-42) but cracked the 20-goal barrier for the second consecutive season. He scored 27 the season before. And so Rust rests with resplendent company.
NHL RWs with comparable statistics settle in the moderately-high million range:
*T.J. Oshie posted 43 points and 22 goals last season; he makes $5.75 million AAV on a deal signed in 2017.
*Sam Reinhart, 25, just signed a three-year deal with a $6.5 million AAV. Last season, Reinhart scored 40 points (25-15-40) in 54 games.
On the high end of the scale, Mats Zuccarello ($6 million AAV), Cam Atkinson ($5.8 million AAV), and Brendan Gallagher ($6.5 million AAV) line up as comparables.
On the low end–and it’s not so low–Tyler Toffoli ($4.25 million), Connor Garland ($4.95 million) have similar but lesser stats over the past few years. Toffoli exploded this season for 28 goals, but he’s typically been a sub-20-goal player.
So, the absolute floor is probably $5 million, but given the other well-paid veterans on the list, we’re going to ignore the floor.
Cashing In, Issues
The Pittsburgh Penguins and GM Ron Hextall are in a sticky spot. If they wait to see if Rust has a bad season and potentially lowers his value, they risk losing the player if/when he again shows himself to be a top-flight RW.
“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,” Sullivan also said in May.
If the Penguins come to the table with a solid well before free agency, Rust has to factor in injury and the security of getting a good deal, perhaps not a great deal, in a spot where he fits.
There would seem to be plenty of room to sign Bryan Rust for 2022-23 and beyond. However, we don’t know if Hextall will prioritize Rust over Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Would a Rust contract limit funds available for the Penguins aging superstars?
Here’s another wrinkle–Kasperi Kapanen. According to PuckPedia.com, the Penguins’ other RW will be arbitration-eligible next summer. Such a status, and a good season, will mean a solid payday for Kapanen, too.
In other words, the Penguins can’t start tossing full value contracts to everyone as former Jim Rutherford was often wont to do, then deal with the fallout later. PHN suspects that Hextall will be far more judicious and big-picture thinking when handing contracts to players in or will soon be in their 30s.
Rust has several reasons not to accept less than full market value. The Penguins fading Stanley Cup hopes, more roster retooling, and he is 29. This is his BIG chance, and maybe only chance to get paid.
Linking multiple issues, Rust may have little to no incentive for a team-friendly deal, but the Penguins may not want to give top-dollar, even though Rust clearly fits in that category with Oshie and Zuccarello. We’ve seen how big contracts affect a player’s value on the NHL trade market.
And we expect the Penguins to be a far different team in five years than they are today.
Rust is worth a solid $6 million, if not $6.5 like Gallagher. If teams are looking forward to rising salary caps and player values, his two-way game and speed may even entice a GM to splash a little more cash.
If Rust goes off for 30 goals or close to 70 points in his walk year, $7 million would be on the table.
In the meantime, Hextall must decide where the team will be in five years and where Rust would fit into that journey. Rust also has to figure out the same.