It can’t be easy playing in the gigantic shadow of Pittsburgh Penguins icon Sidney Crosby.
It’s even harder to play in the even bigger shadow of Crosby and superstar teammate Evgeni Malkin. However, very quietly, Pens winger Bryan Rust has been delivering on a star-like level. Few fans probably keep an eye out for him, but you’d better believe Pittsburgh’s opponents have him on their radar.
All that Rust has done this year is lead the Penguins in average points-per-game at 1.33, a better number than Crosby (1.18) and Malkin (1.08). And, with 14 goals and 32 points in only 24 games, he has put himself on track to beat his personal bests in goals (27) and points (56). Sure, playing in the Pens’ top line, with Crosby and fellow winger Jake Guentzel has helped his production, it’s still an indisputable fact Rust has been one of the most dangerous Penguins this season, and one of the main reasons Pittsburgh currently sits in third place in the Metropolitan Division.
At 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, Rust doesn’t have a big body to throw around the front of the opposition’s net. He has to be craftier and better at going to the right areas of the ice to capitalize on what Crosby or Malkin creates for him. He has to have soft hands to convert the passes he gets into goals. And he has to do it consistently, knowing he’s going to be the target of shutdown lines and defense pairs solely intent on keeping him off the scoresheet.
And man, has Rust ever made those shutdown lines and defensive pairs look hapless. He was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Month for January after leading the league with a 1.91 points-per-game average in 11 games – 10 of which, the Penguins garnered at least one standings point, including an eight-game win streak from Jan. 2-25. Russ produced 10 goals and 21 points in those 11 games, and he had seven multi-point games in the month; only Colorado star winger Mikko Rantanen (eight multi-point games) had more.
Rust is having a career year at exactly the right time for him as a businessman. He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, and although much of Pittsburgh’s money and the media’s attention will go to the soon-to-be UFA Malkin and star D-man Kris Letang, Penguins GM Ron Hextall already has more than $51.8 million committed to only 10 players next season. That leaves approximately (per CapFriendly.com) $29.6 million for 13 other players. Even with a modest increase in the $81.5-million salary cap ceiling, that doesn’t allow much of a raise for forwards Evan Rodrigues (a UFA this summer), Kasperi Kapanen (a restricted free agent at season’s end), and winger Danton Heinen (an RFA this summer). Hextall isn’t likely to bring them all back, but it’s hard to see them walking away from Rust, who is earning $3.5 million per year in the final year of his deal.
There isn’t likely to be a hometown discount in the next contract proposal for Rust in Pittsburgh. At 29 years old, he is in perfect position to sign a lengthy contract with any team prepared to give him term – a six-or-seven year deal that takes him within sight of 40 years old. Rust may never get a better financial opportunity than this one. He has to think with his earnings first, and staying in Pittsburgh second.
Over the years, Pittsburgh's carousel of wingers to surround Malkin and Crosby has included Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel, Neither stayed very long after the Pens` back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, but Rust did, and Guenztel did. And now, after the season ends, there are going to be hard questions asked about Pittsburgh's long-term ability to retain all of their core.
This isn't to suggest the Penguins are going to part with Rust after this season. He's in his prime, he's comfortable in Pittsburgh, and he somehow seems to be getting better as he nears age 30. If you're looking for a relatively unknown NHL star, you should look no further than him. He has won two Stanley Cups and could win his third this season.
Some NHLers prefer hiding in the weeds and avoiding the spotlight. Rust has that aura. And the Penguins have to figure out how to keep him around after this season. It won't be easy, but it needs to happen if Pittsburgh wants to keep evading the bottoming-out-and-starting-again part of the competitive cycle. Rust is integral to the Pens' chances at winning, and that isn't going to change.