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Speculating on Bryan Rust’s next contract

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Whether in Pittsburgh or someplace else, Bryan Rust is due for a pay raise on his next contract.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Since his NHL debut back in 2014, Bryan Rust has accomplished a lot as a member of the Penguins. He became a key cog in the Penguins back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017, including a pair of game winning goals in Game 7s during each run.

Now he’s a first line staple taking shifts alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. He’s also formed great chemistry with Evgeni Malkin and is no stranger to playing on his wing from time to time.

Rust wasn’t even a lineup regular almost a month after Mike Sullivan took over head coaching duties in 2015, but now it’s hard to imagine the Penguins without Bryan Rust in the lineup. He’s become that important to the franchise and the style the Penguins employ under Sullivan.

Even before he found himself taking shifts with Crosby and Guentzel, Rust was already highly valued in the Penguins organization and he was rewarded with a four year contract that carried a cap hit of $3.5 million a season. The deal was signed on June 26, 2018 and runs through the 2021-22 season.

In the first three seasons of that contract, Rust has scored 67 goals and recorded 133 points, good for third and fifth highest on the team respectively in that time frame. He has also appeared in 183 games, the most by any Penguins players in that span.

Now Rust is preparing to enter the final season of that contract and everything we have seen from Rust in the past three seasons all points to one conclusion, he’s due for a pay raise in his next contract.

The only real question remaining when it comes to Rust’s next contract (besides term and value) is whether it will be coming from the Penguins, or has he perhaps priced himself out of Pittsburgh and will donning a new sweater for the 2022-23 season?

Let’s take some time to speculate on what Rust’s next contract could look like and whether or not his future is here in Pittsburgh.

How much is Bryan Rust worth?

On his current deal, Rust is making $3.5 million against the salary cap and that number is almost guaranteed to rise in his next deal. In fact, you could argue Rust is one of the best bargains in the league based on his contract compared to his production on the ice. When that pay raise comes, it will be well earned on his part.

Figuring out Rust’s worth in terms of cap hit can be complicated because he’s such a unique player, but there are ways to narrow down a number.

According to JFresh, Rust’s value based on his WAR is $7.6 million. That is a really big number that the Penguins cannot pay but there probably isn’t a team in the league willing to pay Bryan Rust that kind of money. The WAR values skew towards players who score, which Rust does, so keep that in mind.

Meanwhile, over at CapFriendly, they have a tool where you can compare players statistically and see their contract numbers to get a better idea of where Rust’s true value may fall.

The tool from CapFriendly was invaluable during the research for this piece and the results when comparing Rust against other players from around the league produced some interesting results that helped give a clearer view on what his next contract could look like.

Two of the most interesting Rust comparables from last season are Ondrej Palat of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Jonathan Marchessault of the Vegas Golden Knights. Both players are listed as right wingers and scoring wise are in the same range as Rust.

Both players are also making more against the cap than Rust, with Palat coming in at $5.3 million and Marchessault at $5 million even. Palat’s deal was five years when signed and Marchessault signed for six years when he put pen to paper.

One area these guys differ from Rust is in their age. While the gap between them is not huge, both Palat and Marchessault are 30 years old while Rust just turned 29 in May. However, when Rust’s new deal does kick in, he will be at the 30 year mark.

This past season, Rust produced more goals than both Palat and Marchessault, potting 22 while the other two scored 15 and 18 respectively. When it came to total points on the season, Palat led the way with 46, followed closely by Marchessault at 44 then Rust at 42, so not much difference there.

Knowing what we know about Rust (his role, production, age, etc.) and by looking at his comparable, it’s safe to say he’s worth somewhere in the $5 million to $5.5 million range for his next contract.

The Jake Guentzel Factor

While it’s nice to compare Rust to others around the NHL to get a better idea of what his market worth could be, the truth is, one of his own linemates could be one of the biggest indicators for Rust’s next deal.

Just six months after Rust signed his deal back in 2018, the Penguins agreed to terms with Jake Guentzel on a five year deal that carries a cap hit of $6 million a season. In the three seasons since those deals were signed, both Rust and Guentzel have become offensive forces for the Penguins and entrenched themselves alongside Crosby on the top line.

Although both carry strong offensive talents, Guentzel has become a point per game player in the NHL while Rust still trails behind his linemate in that category despite his consistently strong play in the offensive zone.

If the Penguins are paying Guentzel $6 million a season to be a 40 goal scorer and point per game player, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins matching that for Rust when he doesn’t quite reach the same level of scoring.

This doesn’t mean Rust doesn’t deserve or won’t get a pay increase on his next deal, it just shows that for all the offensive talent he does possess, he still can’t reach the level of his linemate who is already making big time scorer money. When comparing those two alone, it becomes clear that Rust’s next deal, if it comes in Pittsburgh, will have to come under the $6 million mark.

Will Rust Remain in Pittsburgh?

At this point, it’s really hard to say what the future holds for Bryan Rust in Pittsburgh. Unless something drastically changes in their offseason plans, we know Rust will be a Penguin through at least the 2021-22, but after that, it’s all up in the air.

There are so many factors that are unknown at this moment, the most important being what will happen to the salary cap after next season. It’s expected that most arenas will be full once again, but will the revenue be enough to make up for lost time and allow the league to raise the cap? We will have to wait and see.

If the cap remains stagnant another year, then it may take some crafty work to clear the space should the Penguins plan to keep Rust in the fold going forward.

Another point to remember is the Penguins are now under new leadership with Brian Burke and Ron Hextall calling the shots. Their vision of the Penguins future will likely look different than that of the prior regime, and once again it will be wait and see if Rust is a part of that long term vision.

Prediction

Bryan Rust remains a Pittsburgh Penguin in the end.

Just going on a hunch here, but regardless of who is in charge, it’s clear the Penguins best chance of winning a Stanley Cup during this era involves having Bryan Rust on the team. He’s shown how important he is and his chemistry with Crosby and Guentzel cannot be understated. It’s become clear that he is not a fluke and can produce consistently at the NHL level when put in the right situation.

As for what his next contract looks like, well we know he’ll be getting a substantial raise from the $3.5 million he’s making per season on his current deal, but where they settle on a potential new deal is up for debate.

Given what we know about Rust and by looking at his comparables, let’s say his new deal to remain with the Penguins comes in at five years, $26.25 million, for a salary cap hit of $5.25 million a season. A price the Penguins can be happy with while Rust gets a mush deserved raise for all his development and production shown in his last deal.