Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall has a significant job to do over the next year when it comes to working out new contracts for center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. It seems like a given (or at least a strong possibility) that both will be re-signed with the only thing left to be decided is for how many years and how much money.
But there is going to be another contract situation that needs to be dealt with over the next year, and that is veteran forward Bryan Rust.
What exactly is that next contract going to look like, whether in Pittsburgh or somewhere else, and should he be looking for.
We already know how good and important Rust is and do not really need to go into too many details. He has blossomed into a legitimate top-six forward that can not only score 25-30 goals, but also play great defensively, kill penalties, and have the ability to play any role the team asks him to play.
There is a ton of on-ice value in that.
Having said that, he is going to be 30 years old when his next contract begins. Eventually players start to slow down. While Malkin and Letang are also at a point where they are slowing down a little, they are also starting from a much higher point. Their decline is going to look a lot different and be a lot more productive than an average player’s decline.
All of those factors matter. For Rust, for the Penguins, for his potential dive into unrestricted free agency because this is going to be his only chance for a major contract.
Which brings us to one of the first things to addressed here.
What would his value on the open market be?
The flat salary cap the past two years has really hurt individual players on the open market, especially forwards.
Gabriel Landeskog got a nice contract with Colorado, but it still seemed to be less than we originally thought.
Among players that actually changed teams, there are a lot of players that did not get the contract in free agency they were hoping for. That includes Taylor Hall (a recent league MVP), Tomas Tatar, Craig Smith, Tyler Toffoli, Evgenii Dadonov, and Mike Hoffman. All of those players signed contracts that were far less than we would have anticipated in a normal year where the salary cap actually increased as expected.
The only two forwards that did cash in with contracts that have exceeded expectations are Zach Hyman (Edmonton) and Jaden Schwartz (Seattle Kraken). The thing they have in common is Hyman was signed by a completely desperate Edmonton team that knows it has to do something to win and make the playoffs right now, while Schwartz was signed by a Seattle team that is still getting adjusted.
Overall, it seems likely that Rust will probably have to settle for less than he would in a normal year, especially as the salary cap is only expected to increase a very small amount.
So it leads to a very important question for both Rust and the Penguins.
Do they just accept what his value is now and work out a new contract extension? Or does Rust realize he has this one chance to really cash in, go for another major year offensively, and hope somebody else pays him significant money?
The thing is, in the short-term I think there is every reason to believe that he can maintain the numbers he has produced the past two seasons offensively. He is a good player, and even though he will be 30 years old when the next contract begins there is no reason to believe he is going to just stop producing at that level at this exact moment. Especially given his role. A big part of his production the past two years is the fact he is playing a significantly different role than he did earlier in his career. He is playing 20 minutes per game. He is getting power play time. He is playing next to Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Those are all the perfect ingredients for big production, especially with his ability and two-way play. There is a ton of value there.
It would make sense for the Penguins to try and work out a new contract now to just completely eliminate the risk of him leaving in free agency and keeping what is now a core player in place.
There is also an element of Rust looking for guaranteed security. If he signs a new contract now he avoids the risk of an injury (and he has been injured at times recently) hurting his value. It also eliminates the risk of free agency in a flat cap league where the money may not be there.
But could you also really blame Rust for wanting to hold off on signing a new deal right now in the hopes that he can put together another big season and really boost his value? Because if he has a third straight season where he scores at a 30-plus goal pace over 82 games there is going to be at least one team (even if it is a bad team) that will be willing to meet his price in free agency.
It is a tough spot for both the team and the player right now.
The Penguins are already going to be investing big money in two players that we know are on the downside of their careers in Malkin and Letang. Do they have the salary cap flexibility to invest in a third player whose inevitable decline will probably not be as graceful or productive as the other two players? Probably not.
Trading Rust does not seem like an option right now because you still want to try and compete for the Stanley Cup, and he helps you accomplish that goal by being on the roster way more than trading him does. So that leaves you either hoping you can work out a fair deal with him that benefits both sides, or you simply let him play out the contract and take his chances in free agency.
It is going to be fascinating to watch how the team and player decide to approach this.