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The Penguins Can’t Afford to Sign Bryan Rust…They also Can’t Afford Not To

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Bryan Rust, Evan Rodrigues

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.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Frank
Frank
9 months ago

At least for now I am taking more of a wait and see position on free agents but . .. If they are going to let Rust walk and Letang walk and Malkin is very likely to take less . .. ah . . . where is the money going that will be freed up? That sounds like it totals about $15 million or so. And as long as they are in a “let them walk” mood they should hold the door open for Kapanen and Rodriguez and Zucker. One is a miserable underperfomrer; one had his careet peak in… Read more »

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank

Malkin isn’t going anywhere.

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank

I wish I could have given you a 100 + signs. I totally agree.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank

(I’m obviously not a GM but…) IMO, Kapanen has to be gone if only for cap space (the only question, then, is when? Keep him around for a Cup run or try to get something worthwhile in return?). Most of his current salary can go to Rust to get him that 6×6 deal he (reportedly) wants. The savings from Geno (signing him to a less-than-what-Sid makes AAV but no longer than Sid’s current contract) can go to Letang for 3 years. (i’d prefer not to have Geno around (based on what we’d need to pay him) but they may need… Read more »

Justin
Justin
9 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Young

I 100% agree. Rust and Letang are priorities over everyone including Malkin they’re both irreplaceable, Most of Crosbys career it’s been a struggle trying to find great line mates for him (aside from Kunitz and Dupuis) and I feel Guentzel and Rust are his best he’s ever had I just don’t know how GMRH could let him go without putting forth every effort to retain him even if he has to add an extra year or two. Same goes for Letang add a few extra years if need be to get a deal done there’s just nobody that can eat… Read more »

Rob
Rob
9 months ago
Reply to  Justin

Not going to find a new 2c this off season. Look at the fa list

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank

I would listen to offers for both, its free. If something moves the needle-I would def consider a trade. I was never a fan of losing something for nothing ever. Sure, it gives them a better chance in the playoffs, however they still are not on Tampas level even with these guys.

Katz
Katz
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank

Another Red Pill consumer. Thx. Welcome

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
9 months ago

If they aren’t going to, or can’t sign, Rust and/or Letang they can’t let them walk for nothing. They are bereft of minor league talent ready to fill in and the cost for free agents goes up precipitously in the offseason.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark Fisher

I think they can let them go for nothing (but that’s not *my* opinion) because they’re in a spot for a run at the Cup. If the team feels that by keeping them (and losing them at season’s end for nothing) they can simply *get a shot* at the Cup, they’ll take it. Imagine if you’re on that team, right now, in the position they’re in (points-wise) and, when the deadline comes, you move Rust and Letang? Even if they had 0% interest in staying in Pittsburgh long-term. Immediately that makes the season a loss and sends the wrong message… Read more »

Frank
Frank
9 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Young

Here is an even more unsettling message. Rust is easily worth 6 years at $36 million. I am guessing at least a dozen or more teams would pay that for his ability. That is not overpaying. If Pittsburgh does not want to sit at that table what are they thinking when it comes to replacement? More 1 year $1 million dollar signings? Anyone out there looking forward to more Heinan/Rodriguez/Simon additions? Count me out. This nonsense of “keeping the band together” is moronic. Crossing my fingers that the team position is not what media reports indicate.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank

A part of me kinda hopes Geno heads home to Russia to play (so his exit doesn’t look bad). But assuming he stays and Rust is lured elsewhere, without re-signing Kapanen, that gives you $6.7M to fill two RW positions. I’ve got no players in mind, but there will likely be a dip in production for the top line RW slot. Although the second line RW might be better to help offset it. Such is life in the cap era.

Now imagine if Sid’s AAV actually reflected the player he is. The problems we have suddenly don’t look so bad.

Keith T.
Keith T.
9 months ago

Great article Dan. In my view, you are spot on and you have provided the statistical facts that make Rust indispensable. The reality is, they are going to lose a marque player and in my view the priorities will be Letang & Rust. But I really hope they don’t go crazy on Letang on term or the AAV. If Letang wants to cash in, there is no way the Pens can match….. But in all candor, I would try to move Malkin prior to the deadline which might be super difficult. But they are going to lose one or maybe… Read more »

Rob
Rob
9 months ago

The plan should be to sign Rust and pay him what he is worth. Unload a contract or two in order to make it happen. He is part of the core.

Bill
Bill
9 months ago

We need more scoring on the second line. And in those Stanley Cup runs of 16 and 17 the Penguins had contributions from guys brought up from the AHL and played alongside Sid. (See Guentzel, Rust, Sheary,. etc). I am thinking it may be time to implore that same strategy along the right side now. Sidney Crosby excels at making wingers who play with him better hockey players. Who better to help Alex Nylander reach his potential? I am thinking we pull up Nylander to play with Sid and Guentzel. Then we move Rust down to play on Malkin’s wing,… Read more »

Justin
Justin
9 months ago
Reply to  Bill

I was actually just thinking about this yesterday, I don’t know about recently but I saw around a month ago Nylandler was tearing it up in the AHL what would it hurt to bring him up and try him out alongside Crosby just as you said. I don’t know if that GMRH’s plan if they lose Rust or what

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
9 months ago

People just have to understand that we don’t have the cap room to sign everyone!

Rob
Rob
9 months ago

10 players are either rfa or ufas this off season. That frees up cap space. Hextall will have to spend wisely or its rebuild time

Ujn Hunter
9 months ago

I agree and 6 x 6 sounds like a bargain for what the open market would be surely?

Joanne
Joanne
9 months ago

Move Malkin….sign Rusty and Tanger 😁

Dave Heyl
Dave Heyl
9 months ago

This team is not physical or skilled enough for a cup run. If the top line is shut down, as it has in the last 3 playoffs, no one scores. The reality is this team is built for the feel good regular season not the playoffs. Time to move on with younger guys, Zehorna comes to mind!!!

DaGama
DaGama
9 months ago
Reply to  Dave Heyl

This!

Ujermaikan
Ujermaikan
9 months ago
Reply to  Dave Heyl

Don’t worry, the near future holds plenty of time to try out young guys and hit the league floor. We gotta try to push with what we’ve got while we got it. Sometimes I look at our prospect pool and think “man we really need to stop messing around here and start building for the future” then I remember the chances of drafting a franchise changing player like Crosby or Malkin is so incredibly low and we need to run with it while they’re still here. I’m afraid we’ll just get bounced early in the playoffs too, trust me. And… Read more »

Daniele
Daniele
9 months ago

Move zucker, kapanen an 1 of our 4million dollar defenseman for anything we can get, keep rust Letang and malkin

Fredrick
Fredrick
9 months ago
Reply to  Daniele

I agree with this take. I think you have to move a LHD this offseason. I read somewhere that POJ has to clear waivers to be sent down next season. So it makes sense to put him on the 3rd pairing and save some money next year. I believe Zucker and Kap will do well, but our 2nd line needs to be revamped.

Fredrick
Fredrick
9 months ago

I think it is an easy decision to make. I think Letang and Rust are priorities to be resigned. I think if you are going to lose 1 of the three, it is evident that Malkin would be that player. Hex should try to resign them all (especially if Malkin is going to take a pay cut). If reports are true and Rust gets 6 million (+2.5 mil) and Letang gets 8 million (+750k) and Malkin takes a 1-3 million pay cut I think they could easily keep things intact. I think the same holds true if they trade Zucker,… Read more »

Justin
Justin
9 months ago
Reply to  Fredrick

Trocheck is exactly who I’d have in mind if they were able to go after a FA 2C. I don’t know what he’d go for annually on the open market but you’d think it’d still be less than Malkin on a pay cut? Plus he’s from Pittsburgh so maybe being in his hometown he’d be willing to sacrifice some money?

T. Stancliff
T. Stancliff
9 months ago

They should let LETANG go. He comits to msny give aways which turns into goals for the other team
He does it every game. I can’t believe the coaches can’t see it. Unless there awful dumb or just don’t care

Fredrick
Fredrick
9 months ago
Reply to  T. Stancliff

Who would replace him on the top pairing?

David
David
9 months ago

The only way they keep Rust and come into next year as a better team is if they let 71 go. That would be hard to take, but take a look at his stats — he has played close to a full season only once in the last 10 years. And because he is always hurt, or always coming back from injury, along with turning 36 this year, he isn’t the player he once was. Are the Penguins seriously going to continue to pay him close to $10 million a year (or something close to that) in a contract renewal?… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by David
Lisa Nath
Lisa Nath
9 months ago

This probably isn’t quite apples to apples but they couldn’t afford to sign bonino either and then they spent many many assets chasing another third line center that kept not working out

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
9 months ago

Well, Ruhwedel got his raise (2x800K) so another variable is solved.