Bryan Rust will turn 30 in May, and it appears he will hit unrestricted free agency in July. Several teams will probably wave large contracts in front of the former fourth-liner who now scores in bunches, forechecks and backchecks like a madman, and is a leader in the locker room. Yet, the Pittsburgh Penguins cannot afford to sign him beyond this season.
Funny thing. Those same Pittsburgh Penguins can’t afford not to sign him, either.
The last few weeks have been maddening for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. The team mostly keeps winning despite their game not always being worthy of two points. They have feasted on the power play but left defensive assignments to chance. The Penguins have sputtered and stumbled at even strength, except the top line with Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, and Bryan Rust.
Bryan Rust Statistical Value
According to our friends at NaturalStatTrick.com, in 29 games, Rust has been on the ice for 52 Penguins goals (all strengths). Without Rust, the team has scored 59 goals.
In other words, in Rust’s 29 games, he’s been on the ice for 47% of the Penguins offense. The gritty winger has 37 points, including 17 goals, meaning he’s had a direct hand in 33% of the Penguins’ total offense.
In those 29 games with Rust on the ice, the Penguins have not only scored 45 goals but given up only 24.
Not bad for a kid who was a fourth-line bubble player for a couple of years. What’s the going rate for a player who is that integral to a team’s production?
Ron Hextall and The Impending Reality
The scuttle is that Rust would like a six-year, $36 million contract.
Yet, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that Rust will not be back. GM Ron Hextall maintains publicly that there have been talks and presents an optimistic vibe.
“… We’d like to sign some of our (UFAs). We have a hard salary cap, so they’re going to have to work with us. Certain players, if they want the most money, they’re probably going to go elsewhere,” Hextall said on Jan. 27. “But I think you could say that about every team. We’re hoping that our guys are comfortable here, which I believe they are. Hopefully, we can find a deal that satisfies both sides.”
Hextall said discussions have been fine.
Yet the Penguins free agent situation seems dour. They have irreplaceable players and not enough money to sign them all. The last bit of inside dirt we received on the situation was last month when sources told PHN that Rust and the Penguins had contact last summer, didn’t have common ground, but kept the lines open. At the time, there had not yet been substantial talks.
Sources told us the same thing about Kris Letang, whose camp hoped to begin serious talks soon.
Bryan Rust, Other Options, and Fear of Fading
On the ground, there’s been an air of acceptance, an “enjoy the moment” feeling as Rust crashed Evan Rodrigues’s media scrum earlier this year to ask, “Who is your favorite teammate?”
Rust and Rodrigues hooked up for a goal in the next game and could be seen laughing about it. That’s just part of what Rust brings to the table.
“I think it’s just everyone’s going to work that much harder. I think when you play that kind of game where you play a more simple game, go-to-the-net game, you’ve got to be ready to take some crosschecks, you got to be ready to take a few bruises in order to get some goals,” Rust said on Jan. 30 during the team’s pre-All Star break struggles.
A player with that speed and team position talking about taking a few bumps and bruises to score goals are precisely why the Penguins need him.
That and 37 points in 29 games.
Of course, the arguments against it are simple. He’s going to be 30. He’s played only 29 games this season. Last season, he played the entire 56-game schedule but played only 55 of 69 games in 2019-20.
Injuries have been a problem in the last three years. His style of play, the abuse he’s willing to take to score goals, adds up.
I also recall the same being said of Patric Hornqvist. He’s doing pretty well in Florida. The crazy Viking scored 32 points (14-18-32) in 44 games last season and has 19 (7-12-19) in 38 games this season. You may have noticed the immediate change in Florida’s culture. Now, players they add (Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart) excel rather than fade.
Hornqvist is one of the reasons the Florida Panthers culture changed.
Rust is one of the reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins culture remains successful.
Then again, if not Rust, who else will score on the right side of the Penguins lineup? After Rust, there is Kasperi Kapanen, whose talent is surpassed only by his struggles. Evan Rodrigues, a pending free agent, has no goals in the last 18 games and just three points in that time. Danton Heinen is also a free agent who adds a little bit of offensive pop but not much else. Brock McGinn, Zach Aston-Reese, and Dominik Simon fill in the rest.
There’s not a player on the list close to Rust’s production.
Who will fill the spots next to Sidney Crosby and maybe Evgeni Malkin (or Jeff Carter)?
And no, it does not appear that top prospects Sam Poulin and Nathan Legare are close to filling an NHL roster spot. Their first year in the AHL has been challenging.
The analytical, cold thing is to wish him well. Watch another team pony up $6 million per season to reap the rewards as Rust tears through opponents, scoring goals between the dots, near the net, and sets up the same.
But by doing the “right” thing, the Penguins will be searching for the exact same thing and probably have to pay the same price that Rust is asking. A player who already fits and is guaranteed to produce seems to be worth a few more dollars than a gamble on a new player tasked to do the same thing.
What would the team look like without a suitable replacement? Not nearly as good.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The Penguins should probably find a way to pay their bird.