Grove: Rust Is Better Than We've Seen So Far This Season

The question is how much better?

Bob Grove
October 17, 2018 - 12:43 pm

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Related: Pens Preview: Defense Needs To Improve For Penguins To Capture 3rd Cup In 4 Years

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - We already know plenty about Bryan Rust.

He plays a north-south game, and he’s fearless. Loves to take the puck to the net. Very good speed. Hard worker. Good enough defensively to be a second unit member on the penalty kill. He’s been used on both wings, but he’s better on the right side. Given his historic production levels in the NHL, he’s delivered a surprising number of big playoff goals – exactly half of his 16 career post-season goals have come in clinching games, including three in Game 7s. So he can play in the spotlight.

What we don’t quite know yet about the 26-year-old is this: what’s his ceiling? Where does he fit best? Is he a borderline top six winger who gets just semi-regular assignments with Sidney Crosby and spot duty with Evgeni Malkin, or can he hit 20+ goals and 50+ points and become an every night top six forward?

This season, his first under terms of a four-year, $14 million contract, is likely to tell us a lot about where the Penguins see him fitting. The contract proves they’ve committed to him, and his ice time has increased in each of his full NHL seasons. His time killing penalties doubled last season and heading into Tuesday’s game against Vancouver had doubled again this season. The Penguins have set the stage for Rust, who has played all over the lineup in recent seasons (he was moved onto Crosby’s line in-game against Vegas last week and then back to the third line in Montreal on the weekend), to make a case for himself.

Sullivan has had no trouble deploying Patric Hornqvist on the third line, and with the use case for Daniel Sprong nowhere near a predictable outcome, it’s conceivable Rust could slot in even more regularly as a right wing with Crosby. The most regular season games Crosby started in 2016-17 with one set of wingers was 19 with Sheary (left) and Rust (right), and the most regular season games he started last season with one set of wingers was 20 with Guentzel (left) and Rust (right).

Rust’s most frequent line assignment this season – he was playing the left side on the third line with Riley Sheahan Tuesday night – may also depend on how long Sullivan experiments with Derick Brassard at left wing. That move has pushed Jake Guentzel to Crosby’s right wing.

Rust’s speed getting to loose pucks and finding open ice on counters, and his ability to get in on the forecheck, can create opportunities for the top line. He battles hard along the wall. What he doesn’t do, regularly enough, is score when playing with Crosby. Rust played 69 games last season, and he started 29 of those with Crosby (42 percent). But Rust scored only four goals in those games, and while it’s easy to make the case that Rust doesn’t have to put up huge numbers on Crosby’s line to make effective contributions to it (we often say the same thing for Carl Hagelin on the Malkin line), he’s got to do better than four.

Here’s the thing: he has the skills to do better. He had a career-high 25 assists and 38 points last season, and his points-per-game production has climbed every season he’s been in the league – that’s despite the constant shifting between positions and linemates and despite injuries that have prevented him from playing even 70 games in one season.

Last spring against the Capitals, however, he didn’t have a point in the series. He doesn’t have a point through five games this season and has managed only five shots. That’s 11 straight games without a point. When it comes to production, Rust is better than that.

But how much better? The answer won’t come this week or this month, but this season he is at the point in his career when he really can influence the answer in a positive way.

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