Rust has risen from a questionable depth forward to an indispensable part of the Penguins’ lineup in his seven seasons in Pittsburgh
Bryan Rust’s first season with the Penguins back in 2014-15 didn’t provide much confidence, even in just a 14 game sample.
A third-round pick in 2010, Rust debuted as a 22-year-old rookie and scored two points—a goal and an assist—with a -3 plus/minus in just over 12 minutes per game. It wasn’t the most inspiring debut, and his sophomore season wasn’t a whole lot better.
In 41 games, Rust scored 11 points—four goals and seven assists—in 12 and a half minutes per game. Rust was +1 when on the ice, and his shooting percentage rose from 2.9% to 5.6%, but his impact on the ice was minimal. However, with nine points in 23 playoff games in the 2016 Stanley Cup run, including two goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he cemented himself as a clutch performer.
Over the next three seasons, Rust established himself as a middle six skater for the Penguins, scoring double digit goals each season, while missing games each season, but it wasn’t til last season that Rust established himself as a force in the NHL.
After missing some time on the long-term injured reserve to start the 2019-20 season, Rust returned to the lineup and teamed up with Evgeni Malkin to power the Penguins offense.
Rust led the Penguins with 27 goals and finished second behind Malkin with 56 points in 55 games. With Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel missing large portions of the season, Rust picked up the scoring slack and helped drive the offense while doing so. With a 51 CF% (Corsi for percentage), the Pens controlled the puck more often than not with Rust on the ice.
With a healthy forward core in 2020-21, Rust returned to the top line with Crosby and Guentzel, which has turned into one of the best lines in hockey this season.
Rust is tied for the lead in goals (5) with Crosby and Guentzel, and his eight assists and 13 points lead the team. Through 14 games.
Quite the swing from two points in 14 games as a rookie in 2014-15 to 13 in 14 as a grizzled veteran in 2020-21. The Penguins have dominated puck possession with Rust on the ice this season, with a 58.9 CF%. And he still has room to grow.
He’s not a traditional sniper, but he’s grown into one of the Penguins’ top goal scorers with his penchant for gritty goals in close to the net. His chemistry with skilled skaters in Crosby and Guentzel has opened up new scoring chances, and he hasn’t been afraid to put pucks on net.
With 55 shots in 14 games, 20 more than the second-place Guentzel, Rust has peppered opposing goals with shots. His 9.1 shooting percentage, the lowest since his sophomore season, suggests room for increased scoring. His 17.1% from last season seems a bit unrealistic to replicate over a full season, but there’s no doubt that somewhere between 13-15% should be within reach.
With 151 shots in 55 games last season, Rust averaged about 2.75 shots per game and scored on 17.1% of his shots. So far this season, he’s averaged 3.93 shots per game and scored on 9.1% of shots. So, if we imagine he’ll average out to somewhere around three shots per game at around 14% shooting, he’d be in line for 18 goals on 126 shots over the remaining 42 games this season.
23 goals in a shortened 56 game season would be a pretty stellar campaign for Rust, who figures to rack up a ton of assists playing with Sid and Jake.
Regardless, Rust has already racked up national NHL honors so far this season, being named the NHL’s third star of the week for the week of Feb. 14.
If the Penguins want to contend for the playoffs this season in a loaded East division, they will need Rust to continue producing at high levels. Considering his play over the last season and a quarter, there’s no reason to suspect he won’t produce at elite levels.
At just 3.5 million counted against the salary cap this season and next, Rust’s bargain contract is essential in the Penguins maximizing the remainder of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang core. As a 30-year-old in 2022-23, Rust could be in line for a sizeable salary increase, too.
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