Remember the 21-game goal drought? Bryan Rust does. And the hat trick that broke it. And the injury that felled him late in the season. And the low production after he came back. Hey, the speedy, versatile Pittsburgh Penguins winger went to Notre Dame. He’s no dummy.
Rust, 26, put forth a candid description of his 2018-19 season as the team was cleaning out lockers last week.
“Wildly inconsistent, I’d say,” Rust said. “That’s something that I’d like to improve on moving forward, whether I’ve got to take some sort of different mental approach to try to dial in the whole year as far as trying to deal with confidence ups and downs, things like that – that’s definitely something I’m going to try and correct.”
Rust’s first goal came in his eighth game. Then came that 21-game desert before he got three goals Dec. 12 against Chicago.
There were occasional days during that down stretch when reporters would approach Rust to ask about the lack of goals, an awkward situation. Rust would express surprise, frustration, maybe an occasional wise crack, but he didn’t really have any answers.
Still, until he got a lower-body injury in February believed to be an ankle problem, Rust got going well. He finished the regular season with 35 points in 72 games, including a career-best 18 goals.
So about that start. Could it have been some residual effect or pressure from the four-year contract extension he signed last summer, with a salary cap hit of $3.5 million per season?
“I’d like to say no, but subconsciously, maybe,” Rust said. “Things may not have gone the way I liked in the first 10 games or so, and then I think I was gripping the stick a little too tight, maybe feeling the pressure of that. Kind of took me longer to fight out of it than I would have liked. So it could have. I tried not to (let it).”
Rust returned from injury March 17, during the Penguins’ big push to secure a playoff spot. He had one goal, three assists in those final 10 games.
“When I came back from my injury, I would like to say I would have liked to take more time, but I definitely felt good enough to come back,” he said. “There’s obviously little things that bothered everyone. There aren’t any excuses.”
He had no points during the New York Islanders’ first-round sweep of the Penguins in the playoffs. That’s a stark contrast to his previous postseason performances.
Rust, a member of the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup teams, entered this year’s playoffs with 16 goals, 21 points in 58 playoff games. Four of those goals were game-winners.
Of course, Rust hardly stood out for his lack of production against the Islanders. The Penguins managed just six goals in the four games.
They also made a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes, committed several costly turnovers and got beaten in puck battles regularly.
Rust had some thoughts about that, and they extend to the team’s full, inconsistent season.
“We’re a team that prides ourselves on playing fast and making other teams uncomfortable, and I don’t think we did that enough this year,” he said. “I just think we just didn’t do it enough or as consistently as we wanted. We have capable guys in here. We just, for whatever reason, fell short.”
Rust, known for his speed as a key element of his game, was one of several players asked last week whether the Penguins are no longer a fast enough team to play their preferred style.
“I hope, not even 27 yet, that I haven’t lost a step. I definitely don’t think that’s the case as far as me personally,” he said.
“I think it’s a little bit more a matter of execution. Just making quicker plays. Just looking to get up the ice faster while working back to help out a little bit faster. Speed of play, I’d say, more so than foot speed.”
Whether it’s speed or productivity or a batch of seemingly hungrier players, the Penguins could make a few or several personnel changes this offseason.
Rust understands that, but he’s not sure the changes have to be external.
“Every guy in this room has more to give,” he said. “I think the same things were being said about this team five years ago (before the two Cups), so it’s something where you’ve just got to try and learn from it, heed the lessons, try and come back next year hungrier.”
And, for him, maybe more mildly inconsistent than wildly inconsistent.