With a 7-2-1 record over their past 10 games, and just completing a relatively successful week where they went 2-1-0, the Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be back on track after an early season seven-game losing streak.
Sidney Crosby is still playing like a living legend, Tristan Jarry has turned things around, the penalty kill is back to being a strength instead of an Achilles heel, and they starting to climb back up the standings.
They have also been relatively healthy for the first time in years.
Just look at this absurdity.
The Penguins' 6 consecutive healthy games is (perhaps to no surprise) the longest such streak they've had going back to 2000/01 - only matched by a 6-gamer across two series during the 2012/13 playoffs— NHLInjuryViz (@NHLInjuryViz) November 27, 2022
The one thing that is causing me a little concern right now is the production from Bryan Rust.
Entering Sunday he has just five goals and five assists through the team’s first 22 games, was dropped from the top line (which instantly improved when Rickard Rakell replaced him), and has essentially been removed from the top power play unit in favor of a second defenseman (Jeff Petry).
I have said this before, but of all the Penguins pending free agents this past offseason, Rust was the one player that I would have been okay letting go. Not because he isn’t good or was easily replaceable, but he just struck me as the type of player on the open market that would get a regrettable long-term contract that would either need to be bought out or traded in a salary retention deal a couple of years down the line. Those long-term deals for 30-plus-year-old non-superstars tend to backfire rather consistently.
Now, I am not saying that we should totally abandon the idea of Rust being a productive player this season or in the future, but his scoring numbers are down across the board.
HIs goal, assist, and point per game (and point per 60 minute) numbers have plummeted like a rock through the team’s first 22 games, and when he has been on the ice bad things have been happening.
It is a jarring development because for the past four years Rust has been one of the Penguins’ most essential players. He has always had a knack for being able to play up and down the lineup, easily fitting in as a third-line complementary player or a first-line top producer. He can kill penalties, he can play on the power play, and he can impact the game in all three zones. He plays well with depth players, he is not out of place next to superstars.
He is the type of player that can hold a team together because of his versatility.
But it should also be noted that like all players (even the great ones) his production can be inconsistent and streaky. And Rust tends to be streakier than most. He will go through binges where he has eight goals in three games, and then go quiet for the next six or seven.
Is that what this is? Or is it a sign of maybe Rust slowing down?
What makes me a little optimistic that is more of the former than the latter is that even though his goal and assist numbers have dropped, some of his underlying numbers are still strong. Especially during 5-on-5 play.
While pucks are going in the net against the Penguins when he has been on the ice, they are not getting buried in the shot or scoring chance metrics.
Even though Rust is not yet scoring goals, his individual scoring chance and expected goal numbers are still consistent with what he has done in recent years.
For example, here are his all situations per 60 rates throughout his career. The shot, chances, and expected goal numbers are still pretty much in line with where they should be.
He is getting crushed on the percentages. That tells me: Cold streak.
Here are his individual 5-on-5 rates.
Again, pretty consistent, and what is truly wild here is his 5-on-5 goal rate is actually AHEAD of where it was the past two years, while his assist numbers have dropped. That speaks to goal issues on the power play, and maybe bad luck on the assist side.
There is going to come a time over the next six years where Rust’s career does decline to the point where his contract becomes a liability, but I am not convinced we are there yet because if history is any indicator, and if there is anything to be taken from his individual shot and chance numbers, we might be in line for a five or six game stretch here where he starts scoring goals in bunches and sees his numbers catch up to where they should be.