The Penguins announced Bryan Rust’s new contract extension last night, which is meaningful in many ways. First and foremost, obviously, is that it ties Rust to the Pens for the next several seasons on the six-year deal, and probably makes him a Penguin for the rest of the Sidney Crosby era.
Off the ice, the financial ramifications will mean a lot for how the team can handle the rest of their off-season as well. That the Pens are getting widely praised for securing Rust’s services at a fairly modest $1.625 million raise on his previous contract isn’t surprising. Pittsburgh has taken a pretty hard line in contract negotiations, and a lack of offering enough is the major reason why Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang remain unsigned less than eight weeks now from free agency.
Basically, if Rust was to come back to Pittsburgh, it pretty much would have had to have been on a relatively team-friendly salary cap number, and $5.125 million for a top-line player who has been right at a point-per-game in the last three seasons certainly is a very favorable deal for Pittsburgh.
With Rust in the fold, how does that set the Pens up for an off-season that still has several more key decisions and signings to go? Let’s visualize with the always handy CapFriendly to start with what the team looks like as of this moment with players under contract for 2022-23.
Pittsburgh still has almost $24 million in cap space, which is a good thing because clearly they need to bring in a bunch more for their roster. This should not be a huge cause for alarm, since the NHL’s off-season hasn’t even officially started yet, we’re just trying to set the picture for how the roster looks now as of now.
If nothing else, the return of Rust means that the vaunted Pittsburgh first line (which performed wonderfully in the playoffs this season) should be intact for at least the next two seasons, being as Jake Guentzel has two years left on his current contract. This support and level of winger for Sidney Crosby should at least help elevate the Pens to being a strong team right off the bat.
There’s also always the possibility that GM Ron Hextall can reset the lineup with a trade that could send a player with a significant salary (Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson as candidates for varying reason of play, contract status and desirability elswhere) out the door. In the current market, cap space is king and almost every team will be more interested in cutting salary than bringing some in the door, which also should be kept in mind.
But the good sign for the Pens is they have a fair amount of cap room — $23.958 million, to be exact with the players above and Jack Johnson’s buyout going against next year’s upper limit of $82.5 million. And the team has 15 players accounted for above, the regular season limit is 23, but could be as low as 21 or 22.
With Rust back in the fold and at a very workable number for the Pens, could they have room to bring back both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang after all? That scenario seems plausible at this point, but compromise on salary would have to happen (and hasn’t happened yet) so stay tuned.
After the question of the star players is settled, the next huge challenge will be the middle-six forward group. Paying Rust likely means that a path for Rickard Rakell to return to Pittsburgh has likely dried up, being as the team will also still need to re-sign or replace more second and third line players as well (Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues).
Finally, don’t lose track of the backup goalie situation. Though no fault of Casey DeSmith’s due to injury, in hindsight and retrospect, the Pens lost their last two playoff series in large part because they didn’t have a capable backup goalie available for the first round. Again, nothing DeSmith could really do about it, but this situation goes to show the importance of two quality goaltenders (as also seen right now in playoff runs by Carolina and St. Louis where the No. 2 goalie has had to play a significant role).
The goalie market was extremely expensive last season, but it may be of value for the Pens to invest some of their newly found cap-space in a viable, experienced and capable goalie to join Tristan Jarry for next season.