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Building a case to defend Bryan Rust’s slow start

Rust signed a big contract this past offseason, and his slow start is on GMJR’s radar. But maybe it’s not all bad.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Bryan Rust’s lackluster start is not a good look for the recently-extended Swiss Army Knife of the Penguins, and his general manager is up in arms about it, going as far as to basically call him out to the media without naming names.

“You’ve got to take (Rutherford’s) message with a grain of salt and work harder,” Rust said. “Guys don’t want to see movement. Whether it’s getting moved up and down, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are.”

“(Rutherford’s comments) might’ve opened guys’ eyes in the locker room. (We have to) put the puck in the net. We have to do a little bit more. I think we responded well on Wednesday, and we’d like to build on that.”

The 25-year-old winger eliminated the prospect arbitration next year, inking a four-year, $3.5 million deal over this past summer. This saved a bunch of headache for Jim Rutherford, especially if Rust does eventually go on to have a terrific 2018-19 season. But ever since that deal was made, he’s appeared like a completely different player than the one he’s been celebrated for by the Pittsburgh organization in the past. Barring any injuries, Rust was projected to collect upwards of 45 points and net 15-20 goals. As of right now, he’s only tallied one goal and one helper through 14 games — and that assist didn’t even come as a primary one.

There aren’t many things going well for Rust lately, and he’s basically invisible when it comes to the box score. He doesn’t land as many pucks on net as he should, is nonexistent in the attacking zone, and has disappeared on lower lines.

However, I’m not here to dwell on Rust’s current, and apparent, inability to score points. Instead, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. I think, rather, Rust is suffering from a few things that are out of his control and is getting slammed for it. From being bounced around constantly from left wing to right wing all throughout the four forward lines, something that is incredibly difficult to do, to his challenges with puck luck (which he seems to have none of lately), Rust has been asked to shoulder a lot of responsibility, even if that versatile role is what he’s paid for.

My intention isn’t to make excuses for him, because he honestly hasn’t been doing enough so far. But I think it’s worth it to take a more in-depth approach to our assessment of him using Sean Tierney’s Player Evaluator tool so I can show that it’s not all bad. Glass half full mentality, folks.

The good: positive stat lines in relative Corsi For percentage, relative Expected Goals For percentage, and a positive individual shooting percentage while he’s on the ice.

The bad: the abominable PDO monster.

Rust is known for getting placed around the starting lineup constantly, and his skill set has already been deployed on each of the four lines. He’s been good with Derick Brassard and Dominik Simon, sporting a 54.35 CF/60 possession number in their short stint together, but that didn’t pan out due to Brassard’s ongoing day-to-day status with his nagging lower-body injury. Rust’s combination with Patric Hornqvist and Riley Sheahan, however, was not great. That group only put up a 43.52 CF/60.

Mike Sullivan’s latest cure for Rust’s scoring slump was sticking him to Sidney Crosby’s right flank, and for the majority of the Penguins tilt with the Capitals Wednesday night, it worked very well. That trio, including the service of Jake Guentzel, averaged a CF/60 percentage of 54.51 and a solid 48.41 CF/60 against in 40 combined minutes of total ice time against Washington’s top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitrij Jaskin. That’s not too shabby when you consider the firepower possessed by that group. Rust himself played a fantastic game in general, garnered an individual 66.67 CF percentage, and strung together scoring chance after scoring chance — even though none of them managed to hit twine and seemingly clanked off just about everything else located inside Capital One Arena.

To put it simply, Rust has been extremely unlucky with the chances he has created, but, at least on paper, he’s doing everything else right. He does get to the net, even though nothing ever pans out from it. He just hasn’t gotten to the net enough.

You’re never going to get an explosive scoring night from Rust. His modus operandi for helping win hockey games is primarily in drawing penalties, being physical despite his size, and helping out on the offense using his speed to create chances. The past two tilts against the Devils and Capitals have showcased more of the Bryan Rust we know and love.

It might just be a matter of time before we see him come back into full form. For his sake, let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.