They were a big part of the Penguins’ great resurgence of 2016, the young legs that fueled the team’s return to the top of the NHL heap.
They were practically inseparable, too, living in the same Hyatt House hotel, eating dinner together nightly, hanging out whenever they had downtime.
They are Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson and Matt Murray.
They were the Stanley Cup-winning core of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups who ushered the Mike Sullivan era into Pittsburgh.
And now, after a series of trades and free-agent signings, they’re almost all gone.
“It did feel like kind of a freshman class at college, just going through everything together from start to finish,” Rust said. “It is a little sad to see those guys go. Those are the guys I’ve become really good friends with. Now who’s left of that crop is just (Murray) and I.”
The trades started last October when Scott Wilson was sent to Detroit in the Riley Sheahan deal. They continued in June when Sheary and Matt Hunwick went to Buffalo to open up cap space.
That one hit Rust pretty hard.
“Bummed. Just bummed,” Rust said. “He’s a guy I’ve become really good friends with. I obviously wish him all the best. He’s going to have a really good opportunity there. He’s a really good player. I’m sure he’s going to do really well.”
A few days later, Kuhnhackl was gone. Contract talks between the German winger and the Penguins had become complicated, and no qualifying offer was made. He signed with the Islanders, leaving Rust without his best friend on the team and regular pregame soccer opponent.
“The game is a business. Sometimes the business end doesn’t work out in your favor or your friends go somewhere else because it’s better for them,” Rust said. “I think he’s also going to do really well.”
If it sounds like Rust is complaining about the Penguins letting all his buddies go, he’s not.
He understands the business side of the game. How couldn’t he? He just re-signed with the Penguins on a four-year, $14 million deal over the summer.
He knows his Cup-winning teammates are always going to be in demand, and the Penguins are always going to be close to the salary cap, so roster movement is inevitable.
It’s just an adjustment for him. That’s all.
“To have that success on your resume, it shows you can win,” Rust said. “You’ve been part of a winning culture. You know what it takes. I think a lot of teams are looking for that.”
To look at it pragmatically, the Penguins took Sheary, Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney — a later addition to the crop of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups — and replaced them with Daniel Sprong, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon. It was a swap that saved almost $2.5 million under the cap.
The new crop of AHL graduates hasn’t yet made the same mark as the previous freshman class did, of course, but they have the potential to do so. Safe to say they have more offensive upside than Rust and his cohorts did.
“Each player has his own strengths and weaknesses,” Rust said. “This time around, we’ve got some guys who can play with the puck and can shoot. I think we — mainly me, Willie and Kuhnachkl — kind of liked to play a 200-foot game. Had some offensive skill, but pride ourselves on the both-end-of-the-rink game. It’s kind of just how the cards are dealt.”
And now the cards are on the table, the 26-year-old Rust looks around the Penguins locker room and sees he’s no longer one of the younger players on the team.
Again, it’s a change that requires a little adjustment.
“I keep getting older and older and younger guys keep coming in,” Rust said. “If I’m not in that middle group, I’m approaching it quickly.”
Keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at email@example.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Bryan Rust skates during the first day of camp Friday, Sept. 14, 2018 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.