Bryan Rust may not get much play outside of Pittsburgh, but the 29-year-old right-winger is vital to prolonging Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby’s prime. Nothing is guaranteed for Rust past this upcoming season, though. The two-time Stanley Cup champion is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2021-2022 season, but it shouldn’t and likely won’t get to that point.
After free agency opened on July 28, general manager Ron Hextall said he would get around to offering contract extensions to Rust, center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang in August. We’re now about halfway through the month, which means we should hear some news soon. But while Malkin and Letang have a much higher profile, Rust’s potential extension is just as important to the team moving forward.
Outperforming Current Deal
On June 26, 2018, the Penguins re-signed Rust to a four-year, $14 million ($3.5 million average annual value) contract. He was coming off a career year with 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists) in 69 games in the 2017-18 season after scoring 15 goals with 28 points the previous season.
Four seasons into his NHL career, Rust settled into his role as a versatile forward, capable of moving up and down the lineup and with the potential to score 20 goals. That remained true in the first season after he signed his new contract, scoring 18 goals and 17 assists.
However, that changed in 2019-20 when he put up 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games before the NHL shut down because of COVID-19; he was on pace to crack 40 goals and 83 points in a full 82-game schedule. Rust then had 42 points (22 goals, 20 assists) in 2020-21 and joined linemate Jake Guentzel as the only Penguins to play all 56 games.
Speaking of Guentzel, he makes $6 million per year and probably deserves more than Rust because he’s three years younger and a proven point-per-game player. Rust averaged .75 points per game last season. However, Guentzel had 23 goals in 2020-21 compared to Rust’s 22 goals, so it’s fair to say Rust deserves more than $3.5 million per year.
Desire to Remain in Pittsburgh
After the Penguins lost to the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Rust was asked if he was afraid of a possible change and if he would be part of that change after Pittsburgh failed to advance past the opening round in three consecutive postseasons.
Ultimately, Pittsburgh didn’t change much this offseason (or at least haven’t yet). They’ve added forwards Brock McGinn, Dominik Simon and Danton Heinen, and they traded forward Jared McCann to the Toronto Maple Leafs before he was taken by the Seattle Kraken at the 2021 Expansion Draft, where he will join former Penguins forward Brandon Tanev. Otherwise, the team looks relatively similar. Still, the potential for change was there, and Rust admitted he didn’t want to leave.
“Obviously, I love it here,” Rust said during Pittsburgh’s locker room cleanout on May 28. “I’ve been here my whole career. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere. I want to win here. I obviously want to be here. This is home for me.”
Rust was likely never going to be a casualty of the Penguins’ playoff struggles. But, surely he hopes to remain in Pittsburgh past this season, especially after the birth of his first child in late May.
“Family comes first for me,” Rust said. “Obviously, have to make every decision with them and for them. Going to do what’s best for us. Obviously, anytime you can get a good contract or whatever, it’s nice. But I’m just trying to enjoy the family time right now.”
Important Part of an Important Line
There wasn’t any reason for the Penguins to want to part with Rust. Of the three forwards on the top line, he was the most productive in the playoffs against the Islanders, with three points (two goals, one assist) in six games. That doesn’t sound like much because it wasn’t, but Crosby and Guentzel had one goal and an assist each.
That line as a whole needed to be better. But if there’s anything that shouldn’t change in 2021-22, it’s those three forwards playing together. Crosby led Pittsburgh with 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists) in the regular season, Guentzel was second with 57 points (23 goals, 34 assists), and Rust was fourth with his 42 points, just behind Letang’s 45 points (seven goals, 38 assists).
Crosby is locked up through 2024-25, and Guentzel through 2023-24. Rust is the outlier.
Earlier in his career, Rust was known for scoring clutch goals. He did so in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, scoring each of Pittsburgh’s two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on their way to winning the Stanley Cup. Again in 2017, he scored one of the Penguins’ two goals in Game 7 of their second-round series against the Washington Capitals.
His ability to score in those moments hasn’t waned, and yet Rust’s consistency has improved. Instead of being a player who comes through in the clutch, he now scores regularly. As his career has progressed, he has become a true first-line right-winger who has solidified his spot next to Crosby. Because of that, Rust has earned an extension that should come soon.