Penguins lock up Bryan Rust with 4-year, $14 million deal
After he agreed to a new, four-year, $14 million deal with the Penguins on Tuesday, Bryan Rust said he started receiving congratulatory text messages from friends, family and teammates.
“Sid reached out to me and asked me where we’re going for dinner. I told him it would be a surprise,” Rust said, joking about his interaction with captain Sidney Crosby.
If Rust received a text message from every linemate he’s had in his three-plus seasons with the Penguins, he probably would have to contact his cellular provider about adding a bigger data plan.
Rust has played right wing and left wing and on all four lines throughout his NHL career. His versatility has become his calling card, and it’s a big reason the Penguins deemed him indispensable enough to make a long-term financial commitment to him Tuesday.
“It is very important to me, to be able to give the coaches the flexibility and to try to mesh my game with other guys’ games,” Rust said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s skill guys or grinders. I think I can try to adapt my game well to everyone.”
The contract represents a significant vote of confidence from a Penguins team that is butting against the salary cap ceiling this offseason.
With Rust signed, the Penguins are about $4.25 million under the $79.5 million cap with 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract. If, as expected, they’re able to re-sign center Riley Sheahan and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, their cushion will be gone.
If general manager Jim Rutherford wants any flexibility to make offseason improvements to his roster — and he does want that — he’ll have to trade away a salary or two in the near future. He said as much in a meeting with reporters Monday.
By signing Rust to a four-year contract, the team took on a little salary-cap pain now to save itself a headache down the road.
Rust came into this season as a restricted free agent. Computer-model projections estimated he could expect to receive a two-year deal with an average annual salary of less than $2.5 million. After those two years, however, Rust would have been an unrestricted free agent who could have commanded a significantly larger salary on the open market.
The $3.5 million average annual salary he received essentially buys out two years of unrestricted free-agent value.
From Rust’s perspective, the deal is a cause for celebration for a number of reasons.
First, it gives him some stability.
“I think anyone in this business, playing sports, having short-term contracts, anytime you can get as many years as you can or a few more years to have a little more security is key,” Rust said. “I think that’s something I was really looking for, just to be able to relax a little bit and not have to worry about things every year or every other year.”
Second, it’s a tangible reward for a long road to NHL success.
A third-round pick in the 2010 draft, Rust worked his way up into a prominent place in the Penguins lineup by 2016.
His speed and tenacity on the forecheck were a perfect fit for the style of play coach Mike Sullivan was implementing. His series-clinching goals in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay and in the first two rounds against Columbus and Washington in 2017 won’t soon be forgotten.
“I think the overall style of game just fits into the type of player I am – north-south, speed game, try to play in transition and play as aggressive as possible,” Rust said. “It just kind of fits into my style, and I’ve been able to mesh well with the guys on the team and the coaching staff. I’ve been trying to make the most of my opportunities.”
One area where Rust would like to improve over the term of his new four-year deal: production. Rust thinks he has a higher ceiling than the 14 goals and 33 points he’s averaged over the past two seasons.
“I’d probably like to work a little more on my scoring touch and finishing ability,” Rust said. “That’s something I hopefully can keep building on.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] via Twitter @BombulieTrib.