What do Bryan Rust and Willie Nelson have in common? Maybe not too much on the surface but in 2018 their paths have crossed a bit.
In Willie’s latest album, “Last Man Standing” the Red Headed Stranger sings in the titular track:
“I don’t wanna be the last man standing, or wait a minute maybe I do”.
The Penguin forward can relate. Rust signed a four year, $14 million dollar contract this past offseason to tie him to Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future. But, with other off-season moves, it basically made him the last man standing in a sense.
In 2016 some fresh blood from Wilkes-Barre was injected to Pittsburgh. As they have been affectionately known on Pensburgh, the “Mongooses” were relentlessly attacking players aggressively making a name for themselves by standing out with important goals, diehard forechecking and backchecking and contributed some all-around impressive action all over the ice. They came up with or shortly after coach Mike Sullivan got promoted himself that season from AHL coach to the NHL. There was Rust, Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary. Plus goalie Matt Murray. The young blood formed an important depth backbone of the Stanley Cup champs in 2016 - credited with adding fresh legs, energy and a youthful enthusiasm to help to spur the Pens on to eventually two straight Cups in the next two years.
There was indelible moments like Rust scoring in G7 vs Tampa in the ECF in 2016 or Sheary scoring in OT against the Sharks in Game 2 of the SCF, and all the hustle plays and blocked shots by those two and Wilson and Kuhnhackl too along the way.
They were a band of brothers, many of who lived together in the same hotel complex upon their call-ups and connected in a special way on and off the ice. But, professional hockey is a business and nothing lasts forever. As Rust told Jonathan Bombulie of the Trib of his time with his peers:
“It did feel like kind of a freshman class at college, just going through everything together from start to finish,” Rust said. “It is a little sad to see those guys go. Those are the guys I’ve become really good friends with. Now who’s left of that crop is just (Murray) and I.”
While Murray remains, as a special case as all goalies are, the rest of “mongooses” are now all scattered. Wilson was traded last year with an exchange of draft picks to help the Pens get Riley Sheahan. This off-season Sheary was traded mainly for salary cap relief. Kuhnhackl became a free agent and signed with the Islanders, as the Pens basically elected to sign free agent Derek Grant in his stead (and probably for good reason; TK scored 2 goals and 8 points last season, Grant tallied 12 goals and 24 points).
Rust is the last man standing from his group and it’s not lost on him.
“I keep getting older and older and younger guys keep coming in,” Rust said. “If I’m not in that middle group, I’m approaching it quickly.”
At 26, Rust is getting in that middle group of players. He’s got Dominik Simon , Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong as younger forwards than him on the team, to say nothing of the next wave of Teddy Blueger and Jordy Bellerive that could be the next wave of fresh reinforcements in the years to come.
Bryan Rust might not want to be the last man standing, but on second thought maybe he does. (Just check that well deserved big ticket he signed). Though Murray is in the mix, especially in off-ice relationships, it’s clear that in Pittsburgh Rust is truly the last Mongoose left of his generation.
The one thing you never want to see in training camp is in player in pain. Let alone a star player in pain. Unfortunately we did see that Saturday with Evgeni Malkin catching a high stick to the chops.
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin covers up after taking a stick to the face during the opening minutes of training camp Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Pa. pic.twitter.com/SzI4368jjB— Peter Diana (@peterdianapghpg) September 15, 2018
Photo evidence showed Malkin might have been spittin a chiclet or two from his bottom row of teeth, but he didn’t miss very much of practice and would return, thankfully.
Geno’s a tough guy and would finish out his practice session without issue, though he’s probably going to deal with pain and the follow up dental visit. Probably could have been worse, but that’s little comfort when it’s your teeth shattered by an errant accidental stick. Gotta hug it out.
Cullen was the one who accidentally high-sticked Malkin, so he gave him a hug as they lined up for a faceoff. Aww. -MC— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) September 15, 2018
One early on training camp standout has been Finnish defenseman signing Juuso Riikola.
Riikola on why he chose to sign with the Penguins: "Many things. Of course, they are a great group of players and a good organization. The coaches wanted me to come here and that’s a big thing. [Smiling] I’m pretty sure this was the right choice.” pic.twitter.com/1FlM9wP9cI— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 15, 2018
A good friend of Pensburgh agreed based on what he saw on Saturday from Riikola.
First time seeing Riikola and Addison. Strictly based off of this setting, Riikola seems really solid, a guy that doesn't necessarily jump out at you, but just does everything really well. (1/2)— Eric Majeski (@LGP_netwolf) September 15, 2018
Pittsburgh’s defense has a full compliment of 7 players on one-way contracts and six of them make $2 million+. So there’s no doubt Riikola’s battle is very much an uphill one, no matter what he shows in camp this month.
NHL teams don’t like to keep 8 defensemen because that throws off the drills in practice where they have three rotations to keep it rolling (with the extra #7 guy rotating into drills occasionally). And with the forward heavy depth of the Pens, keeping 8 d-men seems impossible.
But injuries happen and it’s probably not out of line at this point to expect that the Euro import in Riikola is at the top of the list right now for a call-up when/if that should be required based off what he has showed so far.
There’s not a terrible lot of interesting storylines for the Pens preseason, but they will likely give a heavy load of preseason games to Riikola to see what they have and also gain him some experience. The numbers almost certainly will push him down to the AHL when the regular season starts, but Riikola is a player that the organization is very high on and one they probably won’t have much trepidation calling up to the NHL at the first possible opportunity.