It is difficult for me to explain just how surprised I was to see the news late Saturday night that Bryan Rust had signed a new six-year contract extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It seemed like a long-shot all season, and over the past few weeks whenever somebody would ask me about the Penguins’ chances of re-signing any of their unrestricted free agents Rust was always the one I put at the bottom of the list.
I figured Evgeni Malkin had a 70-30 shot of re-signing given his legacy with the team and connection with Sidney Crosby. Kris Letang was maybe at a 50-50 shot because of his legacy and the fact he is still so good, but would also be a highly sought after player on the open market. Rust was at maybe a 5-95 chance because it just seemed like this was going to be his big chance to cash in on the open market. Perhaps the only chance of his career.
Given the way he has produced the past few years it seemed that his price tag was going to escalate and that the stage was set for him to get a massive contract offer on the open market, and one that the Penguins might not be able — or willing — to match.
In the end, he was actually the first of the key pending UFA’s to re-sign, and for a fairly reasonable salary cap number.
All of that certainly adds to the intrigue of an already fascinating offseason for the Penguins.
Let’s start with the fact that by re-signing Rust the current front office sees him as a cornerstone player and one that it could not afford to let get away.
A six-year investment for a 30-year-old forward is not something that should be taken lightly. Once a player reaches that phase of their career, and especially a non-superstar, you have to accept the reality that player has probably already played his most productive offensive hockey in the NHL, and that eventually that player’s career is going to really start to decline. It is why most long-term contract extensions in the UFA market always seem to end with a trade, a buyout, or waivers.
I like Rust, and he is an excellent player, one that has come a long way in his development over the years to go from fringe NHL prospect, to key contributor on two Stanley Cup winning teams, to bonafide top-six winger. But I do have some skepticism as to what his career will look like in a few years. If the Penguins were signing a comparable player in free agency (same age, similar player, similar level of production) in unrestricted free agency I would be wondering about the six-year term and what it would mean to the salary cap down the line. Even though this deal is probably $1.5 million less than what I would have expected Rust to get on the open market, it is still a significant investment for a 30-year-old winger that is a very good, but not quite elite player.
This signing would also seem to suggest that the Penguins’ management is not quite ready to toss in the towel on this core and rebuild. If the Penguins were thinking of starting over and beginning a rebuilding phase after a fourth consecutive First Round exit, and with an aging core of players, I can not see them investing so heavily in a player like Rust (or, previously, a player like Jeff Carter).
So that ultimately leads to the question of what happens with Malkin and Letang.
Does this increase the likelihood that one, or both, re-sign?
If not, does it make the Penguins players for a different top unrestricted free agent?
It is interesting that of the Penguins’ pending UFA’s this season that Carter and Rust were the first two to get contract extensions before Malkin and Letang. Granted, those two contracts are probably far more difficult and complicated. But they are also Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. They are the core.
It is going to be fascinating to see what happens over the next couple of weeks, not only with them, but with the Penguins as a whole. This is a team at a crossroads right now with some major decisions and moves to make in the coming weeks and months regarding the short-term and long-term outlook of the team. Based on the early moves we have seen it seems pretty clear which direction the team wants to take (and is going to take). What that actually looks like, though, remains to be seen.