Even without five of their top-nine forwards the Pittsburgh Penguins keep finding ways to win games. Their 6-3 victory against the New York Islanders on Saturday night was an especially impressive win because they not only kept stacking wins with a bunch of callups and fill-ins, they did so against a really good hockey team that is a much bigger challenge than, say, the Buffalo Sabres.
While players like Frederick Gaudreau, Evan Rodrigues, and Radim Zahorna make surprising contributions, it is still the top line of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust making the biggest impact offensively right now.
On Saturday, it was Rust playing the starring role with a hat trick that pushes him to 14 goals in 35 games this season. That is nearly identical to the pace he was scoring at a year ago when he scored a career-high 27 goals in only 55 games.
In total, he is scoring at a 38-goal pace per 82 games over the past two seasons.
Do you remember when Rust opened the 2018-19 season by scoring just one goal in his first 29 games and was one of the players that drew the frustration of former general manager Jim Rutherford? It seems like an eternity ago, mostly because Rust has become one of the league’s most productive goal scorers since then.
Some numbers to prove that statement. Since December 11, 2018, Rust has scored 58 goals in 133 games during that stretch.
The only Penguins player with more goals during that stretch is Jake Guentzel with 62 goals.
Yeah, he has more goals than Sidney Crosby. More goals than Evgeni Malkin.
League wide he has more goals than the likes of Rantanen, Jack Eichel, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Stone, Elias Pettersson, Gabriel Landeskog, and Brock Boeser.
That is a pretty impressive position to be in over a pretty significant sampling of games.
At a salary cap hit of just $3.5 million per season, it has also made him a steal against the salary cap. Especially when you add in his value away from the puck. Rust has always been an important cog in the Penguins’ machine due to his ability to play all over the lineup and in any situation. He fits just as easily on the third line as he does on the first line. You can use him to kill penalties and on the power play with equal effectiveness. There is no role he can not play. Having that sort of versatility and ability is a huge plus, and it has allowed Rust to become a significant core player for the Penguins.
A lot of the increased production over the past two years really just comes down to getting a bigger, more consistent role. He went from being a 15-minute per night player over the first part of his career to a 20-minute per night player on a top line. That extra ice time next to All-Star centers has resulted in a spike in his production across the board.
It also creates an interesting long-term question for the Penguins as they will soon have to figure out what all of that production is worth.
Rust will be an unrestricted free agent after next season and assuming he continues on his current path offensively will have earned a significant raise over his current salary cap number. At that point he is going to be a very delicate player to deal with. He is a significant player that not only has developed into a top-line role, but also a player that has helped you win championships. That carries a lot of weight. But he is also going to be 30 years old when his next contract kicks in and you have to consider that you are paying for what you expect him to do going forward, not what he has already accomplished. It is going to be fascinating to see how Ron Hextall and Brian Burke handle it, especially since they personally have no loyalties to Rust (they did not draft him, they did not win with him).
Still, there is another season-and-a-half before the Penguins have to decide what to do with that.
In the meantime Rust is one of the Penguins’ most valuable players and is a big reason they are now all of a sudden contending for the top spot in the East Division.