There were a lot of things that went wrong for the 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins.
That is why we are sitting here talking about the offseason and what next season will look like in late April instead of white-knuckle TV viewing playoff games.
The goaltending was not good, the bottom-six was not good, the general manager was not good, the coach was not particularly good. Those were the big issues.
But as you go further down the list there was one other minor issue that kinda lurked beneath the surface and did not get a lot of attention. That would be Bryan Rust having a disappointing year.
Not necessarily a bad year.
But also probably not the year anybody expected. At least not based on what he had done in previous seasons and especially not based on the contract he signed in the offseason.
He finished the year with his lowest goal total since 2018-19 and his second-lowest point total since then, despite playing in 20-30 more games than he did over the previous three years.
Between 2019-20 and 2021-22 Rust scored at a 35-goal, 74-point pace per 82 games, which is sensational top-line production and a bargain even on his new contract.
He did not come close to matching that pace this season.
Is there any chance he can get closer to that next season and bounce back? Was 2022-23 an outlier? Or a sign of things to come for Rust?
Out of all the pending UFA’s the Penguins had going into the 2022 offseason, Rust was the player I put at the bottom of the priority list, and the one that I was most willing to let get away. Not because hasn’t been great, but simply because I do not really trust that sort of long-term contract in free agency on a non-superstar getting into their 30s. Those are the deals that tend to not work out.
But Rust came in cheaper than he probably would have been on the open market, and if he stinks in four years it does not really matter because the entire team is most likely going to stink in four years anyway. The goal is to win in the next two or three years while Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are still playing and playing at a very high level.
So just roll with it, especially if Rust gives you a couple more years where he might push 30 goals and 60 points.
The problem is that Rust, even in a full season, did not really give them that sort of production in year one of the contract.
That has to be at least somewhat of a mild concern.
Having said that, I am not quite ready to give up on him just yet because I do think there is a chance he comes back strong next season.
The two biggest drivers in his drop in production: A career-low shooting percentage that dropped below 10 percent for the first time in his career, and a particularly tough year on the power play compared to what he did in recent seasons.
Let’s start with the former and his power play production.
These are his individual per 60 minute numbers throughout his career (via Natural Stat Trick) with the 2022-23 season highlighted at the bottom.
Just a massive, massive drop in production, especially as it relates to his goal scoring.
That drop in power play goal scoring just completely tanked his season. His ability to generate shots, expected goals, scoring chances, and goals in general just completely disappeared on the power play. The power play as a whole mostly stunk, and it seemed to hurt Rust individually more than anybody else.
Somebody that is better at X’s and O’s can dig into the reasons this happened, but I can not imagine he just suddenly forgot how to play on the power play.
Whether it was systematic, usage, or him just not having enough of a shot-first mentality the power play tanked his season.
Much like it help tanked the Penguins season as a whole.
It is especially wild to look at when you look at Rust’s 5-on-5 play and see that it was not only comparable to what we should have expected, but it probably should have been even better.
In terms of shot generation and creating scoring chances and expected goals, it was Rust’s best season during 5-on-5 play. He put pucks on net, he created chances, and he did turn a lot of that into actual goals.
He did the latter part despite having one of the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentages of his career, and even that did not start to increase until the last couple of weeks of the season when he had a late goal-scoring binge.
During 5-on-5 play, Rust had the right process.
He put himself in the right positions, did the right things, and simply did not always get rewarded for it.
I actually feel better about that sort of performance in the big picture than if he had seen a decrease in his shot and chance creation and scored more goals on a higher shooting percentage.
Percentages fluctuate. Process does not. The process was there and he has the track record in recent years to prove he can turn that process into production.
Give him a fresh start next season and there is a real chance he gets back to the level of production we saw in recent years. That will be good news for him individually and for the Penguins as a team.