Over the past three seasons Bryan Rust has been one of the constants for the Pittsburgh Penguins. When he has been in the lineup he has been one of the steadiest, most productive players on the team, and also one of the most dependable.
He is able to play in any and every situation, in any role, and with pretty much any player. He has been a regular next to Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel on the top line, but maintains his production and strong all-around play no matter which line he is part of. All of that has made him one of the most important players on the team and a player that is going to get a pretty significant contract in unrestricted free agency this summer. It will probably not be in Pittsburgh.
All of that is what makes his recent slump stand out so much.
After being held off the scoresheet on Sunday in the Penguins’ 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, Rust has just a single point over his past nine games (a goal) and has just 11 total shots on goal. It is one of the worst stretches he has had over the past three years.
So what is happening here?
Part of it just the normal high and lows that come over the course of an 82-game season. No player is ever going to be consistently productive and everybody is going to have stretches where the puck stops going in the net. But it is not necessarily the lack of goal scoring or point production that has stood out over this stretch for Rust. It is that he is simply not generating many shots on goal or creating much of anything.
During this recent stretch he has recorded more than one shot on goal just three different times, and more than two shots just twice. He has not recorded more than three shots on goal, and in three games has been held to zero shots on goal. In the 49 games prior to this stretch he had been held to zero shots on goal in just ONE game all season (an overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on March 4). By comparison, in the previous nine games before this stretch he had 32 shots on goal, three goals, and eight total points.
Another significant factor: He has spent a significant portion of his 5-on-5 time during this stretch playing next to Jeff Carter, a pairing that absolutely tanked his production.
With the success of Rickard Rakell on the Crosby-Guentzel line, it pushed Rust down to the second line next to Evgeni Malkin. That duo has actually been productive. Over the past nine games Rust has a near 60 percent Corsi rating, outscored teams by a 3-2 margin, and had overall strong underlying numbers.
When Malkin got suspended, it put Rust on a line next to Carter. It did not go well. Carter has struggled to carry his own line for the most of the second half of the season, and that was especially true recently when he had to fill in for Malkin on the second line. The Rust-Carter duo had a shot attempt share of just 22 percent (14 shot attempts for, 50 shot attempts against), a 34 percent expected goals share, and was outscored by a 1-2 margin. It has been a common trend for a few weeks now, perhaps even longer, that Carter’s line has not produced much during 5-on-5 play or been able to tilt the ice. It is one of the reasons I think Carter and Blueger should be swapped in the lineup. But it is what it is at this point. The combination of no longer playing next to one of the top two centers, and being placed on a line that has struggled, has had a profound impact on Rust’s production.
There is one other factor that is beyond his linemates or the normal highs and lows of a season. He is simply not hitting the net. He keeps ending up in the right positions, he has the puck on his stick in scoring situations, and then simply misses the net.
Over the past nine games Rust has attempted 29 shots in all situations and managed to just put 11 of them on goal. The 29 shot attempts is still a low number for him, but the 11 shots on goal is just staggering. He has hit the net on just 37 percent of his total shot attempts over the past nine games. The only forward on the team that has a worse percentage is Brock McGinn who has hit the net on just 33 percent of his shot attempts, and even that is only six shot attempts over six games.
Every other forward on the roster has hit the net on at least 46 percent of their attempts, while all of them except for McGinn, Rust, and Kasperi Kapanen (46 percent) have hit the net on more than 50 percent of their shot attempts over this most recent stretch. Only five of his attempts have been blocked, meaning he has missed the net entirely on 13 of his 29 attempts. That is over 44 percent of his shot attempts just flat out missing the net. Only Kapanen (46 percent) has missed the net on more of his attempted shots over the past nine games.
On Sunday alone Rust missed the net on three attempts, including two prime scoring chances in the second period.
Over the past nine games he has 2.25 individual expected goals, and while his 0.87 mark per 60 minutes is far below his season average (1.34) it is still fourth best among the team’s forwards (behind only the top trio of Crosby, Guentzel, and Rakell) over the past nine games. Which again points to the fact he is generally in the right positions. He just needs to hit the net.
Rust has enough of a track record that you should expect him to play his way out of this funk, and I want to see what happens when he starts getting more consistent ice time with Malkin instead of Carter. Simply hitting the net would probably help things as well.