There is a popular opinion around the hockey pundit community that says that you should never sign a player that is going to be 30-years old to a long-term deal unless it’s a “franchise” player. Generally, I tend to agree with this sentiment. There are more examples than I care to list here of 29-31-year-old players having big seasons, getting signed to long-term big-money contracts in free agency, only to see a big decline in their production in a few years. Yet despite this notion, I’m here to not only suggest the Pittsburgh Penguins should offer a big contract to their soon-to-be 30-years-old winger Bryan Rust a new contract, I think it would be stupid for them not to.
Rust (29) is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end. Coming into this season, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Rust would end up pricing himself out of Pittsburgh, considering that the Penguins are tight when it comes to cap space, not to mention they still want to re-sign Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin long-term, as they should. That said the Penguins can and should do whatever it takes to re-sign Rust, who seems to get better and better as his career progresses.
Rust, who was just named the NHL’s 3rd star of the month, is having a career year and of course, I’m sure his agent and he are foaming at the mouth at the possible contract offers they’ll receive if the Pens’ allow him to enter free agency this summer. And no Pens’ fans, Rust isn’t going to nor does he owe it to the team to take a “hometown discount”. This isn’t even his hometown for crying out loud. Putting Rust’s career year in perspective, he’s on pace to score 47 goals and 109 points through 82 games this season. This type of production from Rust isn’t “new” either, considering Rust trails only Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby in points-per-game since the beginning of the 2020-2021 season. The sample size is big enough to show that Rust produces at a top-line rate consistently.
The production though is only part of the reason why Rust should be retained at almost all costs. Unlike wingers such as Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker, Rust’s game helps the Penguins even when he isn’t scoring. Rust is by all accounts the team’s best and most consistent forechecking forward, and perhaps the most effective forechecking forward in the entire league. The Penguins’ system is so dependent on establishing an effective forecheck and Rust leads the charge and sets the tone on a nightly basis. You would be hard-pressed to find another winger for less than $7 million that is going to be more effective five-on-five, as well as providing the other aspects of Rust’s game.
Ok, so we have established that Rust is a very good player and a legit top-line winger. Now let’s figure out how and why the Penguins should do what they can to keep him. First, let’s say for sake of argument that Rust would agree to anywhere from $5.5 million-6.5 million per year. Hell, the season he’s had on top of how he’s been a key contributor to two Stanley Cup championship teams I could easily see some NHL general managers giving him even more. That said perhaps if the Penguins are selling him on staying with Crosby and Guentzel long-term they can agree to the numbers I mentioned, there would still be work to do.
Easier said than done but the obvious things to do is try and move the contracts that aren’t good value starting with the aformentioned Zucker. Zucker makes $5.5 million and still has a year left on his deal after this season. The Penguins need to find a team that would be willing to take this contract on for them not just to re-sign Rust, but because Zucker has been a major disappointment in Pittsburgh. Kapanen is another player whose contract is up after this season that if it comes down to offering him an extension or keeping Rust it should be a no-brainer, even it means “overpaying” for Rust.
Outside of Guentzel and Rust, the Penguins do not have another winger that can produce at this level nor do they have any promising prospects ready to fill his role. If they try to go after free agents they’ll need to spend even more on a player that would be able to put up similar results. If the goal is to try and compete for one more cup during the Crosby era then re-signing Rust is a must.