The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a sticky situation when it comes to Bryan Rust. That said, it’s not a completely unique position since another team went through something very similar last season. In 2022, Rust is to the Penguins what Zach Hyman was to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021: a player on an expiring contract the team wants to keep but knows it probably can’t afford to and there’s not much they can do about it.
Rust’s Contract Situation for Penguins is Problematic
According to reports like that of Dan Kingerski with Pittsburgh Hockey Now, Rust is potentially looking for a six-year deal at $6 million per season. Coming off a contract that is currently paying the forward $3.5 million, it’s a substantial raise, one he has earned with his stellar play and production. Rust is now a consistent 20-plus goal score in the NHL. He’ll have a ton of value in free agency and the $6 million per season he wants should come easy.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, they likely can’t afford to pay that much, at least not without making other sacrifices.
The Penguins have contracts for Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Evan Rodriques, and a host of other players to look after. Throwing $6 million at Rust isn’t an easy decision to make, even if it’s becoming quite clear other teams will make that offer. GM Ron Hextall acknowledged the Penguins are in a bit of a tight spot when he recently noted, “… We’d like to sign some of our (UFAs). Certain players, if they want the most money, they’re probably going to go elsewhere.”
The Penguins might have no choice but to let Rust leave because they certainly can’t trade him this season, not while they’re tied for first in the Metropolitan Division and looking to make a run.
Maple Leafs Went Through Similar Situation With Hyman
Zach Hyman was coming up on the end of his contract with the Maple Leafs last season. He’d proven himself to be a more-than-effective forward, one who could play with star players, all while driving strong possession numbers and playing in multiple situations. He didn’t score goals as consistently as Rust has, but he was the free agent darling of the last offseason and there were rumored to be multiple teams waiting in the wings if he shook loose from Toronto. The Edmonton Oilers landed him, but they paid a high price to do so, offering him $5.5 million per season for seven seasons.
Rust and Hyman are the same age, will get similar contracts and there will be a ton of teams ready to offer seven years to a player that many believe is only getting better. The Maple Leafs wanted to keep Hyman, but they simply couldn’t afford to pay him what the market would offer. They also couldn’t trade him because they needed him for a stretch run, even choosing not to move him in the summer because they felt there was still a shot to sign him.
In short, Toronto was banking on a loyal Hyman wanting to stay because he loved the team and the city so much; some fans and insiders suggested Hyman would take a discount to stick around. He didn’t.
Can Penguins Find Their Own Version of Michael Bunting?
For Leafs Nation, thank goodness Toronto did well by finding Michael Bunting. He’s come in and produced for the Maple Leafs at a value so much higher than his salary, he’s been a godsend. In fact, it would be interesting to see where the Leafs would be at if he hadn’t stepped in the manner he has. The Penguins might be faced with having to find their own “Michael Bunting.”
That will be easier said than done. Finding someone who makes $950K but produces at a 27-goal space as Bunting has thus far isn’t a realistic expectation. The best the Penguins can hope to do is find someone who comes close and not strike out as the Leafs did when they thought they were solving some of their Hyman issues by adding Nick Ritchie.
Can Sam Poulin, Nathan Legare or Filip Hallander be to Pittsburgh what Bunting has to Toronto? Hextall has to hope so if a group 6 free agent isn’t just out there hanging around for the Penguins to sign.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”