The National Hockey League’s COVID-19 pause aside, the Pittsburgh Penguins are playing like they’re in first place. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, including an utterly dominant 6-2 win in the Battle of Pennsylvania on Thursday night. The Penguins’ winning streak demonstrates clearly how important every member of the team has been and has created a team of unsung heroes. With some of their biggest names currently out of the lineup, many players have stepped outside their traditional team roles and have entered the spotlight as the Pens climb the standings.
Perhaps no player has been more important to the Penguins’ recent successes than Bryan Rust, one of their pending UFAs. Recently having returned from injury, his torrid scoring pace has quickly turned him into the team’s most valuable player.
Rust Setting Records While Lighting the Lamp
Rust has carried the Penguins through the first three games of 2022, and in the process, has joined some extremely elite company. He now has 11 points in those three games, joining Penguins’ legend Mario Lemieux and “The Great One” himself, Wayne Gretzky on the list of most points through the first three games of a calendar year. Rust has scored multiple goals in three of the last four games, potting two in Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Rust served as the catalyst for the top line in that game, as he also added an assist on Jake Guentzel’s 18th of the season.
“Those extra practices that I got in with the postponed games, I think that helped a lot.” Rust said. ” think just being able to get those reps and get that chemistry back with my line, get that confidence back, shooting the puck, making plays, things like that, I think that did go a long way.” (From “Rust continues ‘torrid’ pace in rout of Flyers.” Taylor Haase. DK Pittsburgh Sports. 07/01/2022.)
Rust’s attitude goes to show just how much he deserves for his recent efforts to be rewarded, and three multi-goal games in a row is a fantastic way to do it.
Rust Playing at a High Level Even With Interruptions
Given Rust’s extreme scoring pace as of late, you’d be forgiven for believing that he’s gotten regular playing time over the course of the entire season. In fact, these last four games (three of which have been victories) are the only ones he’s played in since suffering a lower-body injury in warm-ups before the Penguins’ Nov. 26 game against the New York Islanders. Rust and other injured teammate, Jake Guentzel, only returned to practice on Dec. 20th, which happened to coincide with the league’s holiday/COVID-19 pause. Teammate Zach Aston-Reese commented on how much the team has missed those two players, saying:
“It’s nice to see Jake smiling and laughing out there, and Rusty. t’s good to see those guys back. Anytime a guy goes down, it [stinks]. But when it’s a top-six guy like Rusty or Guentzy, it [stinks] even more.”
Penguins’ forward Zach Aston-Reese on the absences of Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel. (From “Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust Return to Penguins Practice.” Matt Vensel. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 20/12/2021.)
The praise Rust has received from his teammates during his lengthy absence speaks to just how important he has become to the Penguins’ locker room and to the team’s success.
Rust’s Importance Forces Difficult Offseason Decision
Rust was incredibly important to the Penguins’ success even before his recent hot streak. He’s been a key contributor since his debut in 2014. He was a key member of the Penguins’ team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Rust is playing out the final year of a four-year, $40 million contract and is one of the team’s top pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs).
The Penguins have a total of 14 pending free agents and general manager (GM) Ron Hextall will soon have to make decisions on who to bring back and who to let go.
Hextall’s decisions are of particular interest, as included in those expiring contracts are two of the team’s “big three” (Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang). Signing Rust to a new contract should be a priority but Hextall will need to do some major convincing in order to clear the cap space for it. In order to demonstrate Rust’s contract is indeed a priority, it’s likely that either Malkin or Letang will have to accept a pay cut. Preliminary talks on Rust’s contract never really materialized and Penguins’ management must figure out a way to keep Rust in the picture, especially with Hextall’s pending decisions on Malkin and Letang’s contracts.
Rust holds a fair bit of sway over his future, as his electric play and steady presence on the top line – along with his stellar resume – could easily see him command interest from a number of different teams, should he enter free agency. If the Penguins truly believe Rust is a major part of their future, they’ll need to show him; not only in the sense of signing him to a new deal but also by treating him like the star player he is so clearly developing into.
The Penguins are entering a period in which they’ll have to make many extremely important contract decisions in the offseason and the combination of Bryan Rust’s seemingly unstoppable scoring ability as of late and the attitude of his teammates towards him, mean that he deserves a contract extension that reflects how valuable he has become.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.