As the final horn sounded on the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ season after their first-round loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7, the somber feeling of a season cut short loomed large in the hearts and minds of fans, players, and management. However, as fans lamented, general manager (GM) Ron Hextall and company got down to business and locked up a major piece of their long-term plan.
Forward Bryan Rust quickly signed a six-year, $30.75 million contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $5.125 million. Given all of the rumors swirling around the team’s established core, Rust’s extension provides some stability, benefitting the Penguins even if one or more of the core choose not to return.
Rust’s history of remarkable play and leadership will complement the roster as it stands as well as serve as a replacement for Evgeni Malkin should the Penguins’ legend not return next season.
Rust Has Already Proven Himself Worthy
Rust’s career statistics demonstrate that he is not only worthy of his new contract but also worthy of recognition far greater than that which he already receives. Before he signed his new deal, he made a point to mention that he did not intend to overreach:
“I’m not looking to rob anyone. I just want what I deem is fair. Get a reasonable contract. I’d like to think something’s going to get worked out here.”– Penguins’ forward Bryan Rust (from “Rust: ‘I’m Not Looking to Rob Anyone’ With Next Contract,” Pittsburgh Hockey Now, 17/05/2022).
Rust was considerably modest for a player of his caliber. He’s a point-per-game player, scoring 91 goals and 100 assists in 243 regular-season games, all with the Penguins. He has shown his ability to play wherever head coach Mike Sullivan wants to put him. Whether he’s on the top unit with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel or the second line with Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen, he always manages to produce or helps his linemates out of whatever funk they seem to be in at the time. Top that with his willingness to accept a team-friendly deal to stay in Pittsburgh, and his extension proves his loyalty to the club and their fans.
Rust Won’t Fully Replace Malkin, But He Comes Close
It’s nearly impossible to discuss the Penguins without mentioning their core three players: Crosby, Malkin, and defenceman Kris Letang. These three have defined the team for almost two decades, playing their first game together on Oct. 18, 2006. Through three Stanley Cup titles, numerous individual honors, and a complete shift in the fortunes of the franchise, those three have been there.
The 2021-22 season introduced uncertainty to that core, as Malkin is slated to become a free agent when the season ends on July 1. Despite what Hextall has told him previously, it is now believed that re-signing Malkin to a contract similar to his current one is not feasible given the economic state of the Penguins (from “Penguins’ Crosby, Malkin, Letang embark on what could be final playoff run together,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 01/05/2022).
Given that, it may be time for fans to admit one of their favorites might not return to the Penguins. However, Rust has shown – not just through his on-ice play – that he can serve as a more-than-capable replacement for the star Russian forward if Malkin departs come summer. Rust’s teammates have been waxing poetic (rightly so) about his leadership ability and what his presence means to the team. Head coach Mike Sullivan has said of Rust:
“From a leadership standpoint, he’s just a great person. I think he’s a good pro. He controls everything within his power to give himself the best chance to be successful. And then his work ethic, his willingness when he comes to the rink to put the work into to maximize his potential – I think it’s also impressive.”Penguins’ head coach Mike Sullivan
In terms of on-ice production, though, this season’s numbers alone qualify Rust to replace Malkin. Going into February, he had higher points-per-game numbers than Malkin and was poised to surpass his career-highs in goals and points, the latter of which he achieved. Rust also received player of the month honors for January with a 1.91 points-per-game average alongside 10 goals and 21 points in 11 games.
If anyone was wondering what would become of the Penguins if and when the core broke apart, the team remains in good hands.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.