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Bryan Rust’s season a story of talent meeting opportunity

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When a good player gets an increased role and an opportunity to shine great things can happen.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins snapped their six-game losing streak on Tuesday night with a pretty convincing 7-3 win over the Ottawa Senators.

Was it their best performance? Not at all. But they did what they needed to do: They got back in the win column and feasted on a bad team.

The big news on the night was the return of defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino following extended absences due to injury, and they were both outstanding in their returns and made immediate impacts.

But the big star of the night was winger Bryan Rust for recording his third career hat trick and continuing what has been a career year. After Tuesday’s effort he now has a team-high 27 goals, has already leaped over all of his previous career highs, and has done all of that despite there still being 17 games remaining in the season as well as the fact he has missed 14 games.

His current 82-game pace would put him on track for 43 goals and 85 points with strong underlying possession numbers. All-Star level stuff.

A few thoughts as to what’s been happening — and still is happening — here.

First, you can’t ignore the jump in shooting percentage.

After Tuesday’s game he is rolling along at 18.2 percent this season which is not only far and away a new career high for him in a single season, it is also well above his overall career average. In the three seasons prior to this one he scored on 12.2 percent of shots. Assuming he shot at that same rate on the same number of shots this season he would have 17 goals this season instead of the 27 he currently has. It is worth noting that would STILL be close to a 30-goal pace over 82 games. So it’s still excellent.

If you break it down to just 5-on-5 shooting, he went from 9.6 percent the previous three years to 15.6 percent this season.

There is still definitely a small element of puck luck at play here.

But it’s not the only thing driving his success, and if you simply write this season off as “shooting percentage driven luck,” you are being terribly unfair. You are also wrong.

It is also a matter of a talented player getting an increased role in areas he really hasn’t had a chance to shine in before. Part of that is not only getting more minutes (on average four additional minutes per game versus previous seasons), but getting a lot of minutes next to Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

There is also the power play, which might be the biggest difference-maker in his performance. So far this season Rust has already logged more than 140 minutes of power play time where he has already scored eight goals. For his ENTIRE CAREER prior to this season he played just 85 minutes on the power play. He has already nearly doubled his power play usage for his career in just 51 games.

I’m not saying this is a direct parallel because I don’t know that it is reasonable to expect Rust to be this good, but his career is following a similar career arc to that of Brad Marchand in Boston.

When Marchand first arrived in Boston he was getting about 15-16 minutes per night — with limited power play — for his first four or five years and putting together 20-25 goal, 50-point type seasons. On a per minute basis he was a wildly productive 5-on-5 player. He just didn’t get a ton of ice-time or a ton of power play time. But in his age 27 season (the same season Rust is in now) his role was dramatically increased. He started playing closer to 20 minutes per game, he became a major player on the power play, and he suddenly went from a very good second-line scorer to one of the best scorers in the league.

I still won’t go as far as to say that Rust was as good age 22-26 as Marchand was, and I still don’t think he has quite the upside to 90-100 point player every year, but it is a good comparison as to what a talented, already productive player can be capable of when they get an increased opportunity.