The Pittsburgh Penguins have won two in a row, and Evan Rodrigues has taken to playing with Sidney Crosby like a yinzer to wearing a Steelers jersey to church. Last week, influential writer Frank Seravalli put Bryan Rust in the top-10 of his NHL trade bait list. Count me as skeptical of the Penguins shopping Bryan Rust, but it does bring the Penguins aspirations into focus.
What the Pittsburgh Penguins do with Bryan Rust will tell us the Penguins front office’s immediate plans.
Are the Penguins headed for a rebuild next summer? Will GM Ron Hextall attempt to retool on the fly, or will they allow the remaining championship core to ride into the sunset together by splashing new contracts?
Rust seems to be the most immediate bellwether to that most crucial question.
Rust is on IR and did not make the west coast trip with the Penguins, but he is not on LTIR, which generally means his lower-body injury will not keep him out for months. So, we can proceed with the big picture discussion of Rust, the Penguins, and the NHL trade market.
The Penguins seem to be the recipients of good fortune packaged in the form of others’ misfortune. The Philadelphia Flyers cratered. They have one win in their last 10 games and trail the Penguins by nine points for a wild-card spot with two games in hand.
The New York Islanders are sinking into the Montauk marshes and winless 11. The presumed Stanley Cup contenders can’t buy a win and probably won’t go for the shakeup move of firing the coach (Barry Trotz) or GM (Lou Lamoriello). They trail the Penguins by 14 points but have five games in hand because of a COVID pause.
So, the Flyers trail by at least five, and the Islanders trail by at least four.
The Pittsburgh Penguins closest pursuers are the Boston Bruins, who are clearly playoff-worthy and will continue to solidify when they sign Tuukka Rask shortly. He’s currently functioning as their emergency backup while he works his way into shape. The other teams on the Penguins’ heels in the wild-card race are the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, both surprise candidates that will have difficulty keeping pace as the better teams get their acts together.
Evan Rodrigues & Kasperi Kapanen
The other bit of good fortune for the Penguins seems to be finding Evan Rodrigues. Injuries and illness created opportunities for Rodrigues in the Penguins lineup, and he did the rest. “E-Rod” dished a couple of pretty primary assists in the 6-1 win over the Seattle Kraken.
Rodrigues has been on a tear this season, but his heightened powers have reached full bloom on the top line with Sidney Crosby. Sure, Jake Guentzel is red-hot and filling the net like he’s making up for lost time. Yes, Sidney Crosby is one of the five greatest players ever, but no one will argue Rodrigues has been a passenger.
Quite the contrary. Rodrigues’s insertion on the Crosby line was the necessary spark.
However, the opposite is true with Kapanen. At this moment, it’s tough to argue that Kapanen makes Rust expendable. Before the season, perhaps that bucket held water, but it’s draining quickly. Kapanen is muddled in a slump, and head coach Mike Sullivan demoted him to fourth-line duty on Monday night. Kapanen is on a similar arc to his Toronto Maple Leafs tenure when he scored 20 goals in 2018-19, raised hopes, then crashed to 13 goals, and was demoted to third/fourth line duty the following season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Poker Game
Hextall has no reason to signal his intentions to anyone. If he signifies this is the last go, other GMs may price their talent accordingly. If he signifies that Malkin and Letang will stick around, their price goes up, too. And, PHN has a sneaking suspicion that Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke are letting the current group of players sink or swim, thus putting the grand decision in the players’ hands.
The playoffs should be a big question mark for a team bubbling just over .500, but the stumbling Penguins’ pursuers only enhance the Penguins playoff chances.
So, if winning now is of utmost importance, the Penguins surely could not acquire a better rental player at a cheaper price than Rust and his $3.5 million salary.
The poker game will unfold like this:
*If the Penguins put Rust on the NHL trade block for immediate and equivalent help, it’s about going for it.
*If the Penguins put Rust on the block but simply recoup future assets, we’ll know the playoffs this season are not the ultimate goal, and the futures of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang would seem to hang perilously.
*If the Penguins do not entertain offers for Rust on the NHL trade market, we can divine a couple of things from such actions. First, we could safely assume the 2022 NHL playoffs are the top priority. Keeping one of the best pending UFAs despite the risk of losing him in July means the Penguins are prioritizing winning in the immediate.
Rust would essentially be a high-end rental acquisition, but in-house.
Second, we could also assume the Penguins have some interest in re-signing Rust, even if there hasn’t been a whisper of substantial contract talks.
*The third option would be to use Rust to acquire immediate and equivalent help, perhaps on the blue line. Such a move would also send positive vibes through the fanbase that a cataclysmic event is not on the immediate horizon, and the team will attempt a smooth transition.
The Penguins can thank fellow late-bloomer Rodrigues for even raising the question of whether Bryan Rust is necessary for the top line. However, even if Rust is not needed there, he’s certainly needed in the Penguins lineup. He is a 27-goal scorer with speed, tenacity and has grown into a leadership role.
Keeping Rust around might be a good idea, if possible.
But we’re going to find out what the Pittsburgh Penguins are thinking and what the immediate future holds. Eventually, Hextall will tip his hand, and that tell looks like it will be: what to do with Bryan Rust?