Following four solid individual seasons, Penguins forward Bryan Rust broke out in 2019-2020, scoring 27 goals and assisting 29 more. And he did that in only 55 games.
Rust was one of only 21 NHL players to appear in more than ten games and average a point per game or better last year, joining teammates Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.
This season, Rust hopes that he can take things to an even greater level.
“In the offseason, I was just trying to continue what I did last summer and kind of build on it, just work on my weaknesses and work hard on all aspects of my game, said Rust, who expressed desire to be more of a calm, but vocal leader in Pittsburgh’s locker room.
“When things are good, don’t try to get too high. When they’re bad, don’t get too low. I think the ability to stay in the moment is going to help me.”
With production comes more responsibility and more opportunity, as Rust has been thrust onto the Penguins’ top power play unit, a group hoping to atone for a dismal finish to a lackluster year of man-advantage hockey.
The Penguins finished 16th in the NHL in power play percentage and went 3-of-17 in their surprising playoff series loss to Montreal.
But Rust's development and demeanor could help with that and is something Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has an eye on.
“He’s grown in so many ways,” Sullivan said. “His on-ice game has really matured. He’s really turned himself into a real good, 200-foot player. The offense that he’s been able to create at this level has been impressive.”
Rust had only one goal in Pittsburgh’s final eight games last year. But a player who once was frequently moved throughout the lineup seems to have found a home on the second line during training camp, where he has flanked a group centered by Evgeni Malkin, with Jason Zucker on the other side.
“The ability for (Zucker) and myself to use our speed to create space for (Malkin), and then (Malkin’s) going to be able to do what he does best, that’s been meshing pretty well,” Rust said.
Versatility has been a vital necessity for the Michigan native. He has shown the capability of playing as a top six winger and has developed chemistry with both Crosby and Malkin which, despite their talents, is no easy task due to the contrasting styles of the two superstars.
Rust thinks of Crosby as “the ultimate grinder,” while Malkin is “a little more methodical.”
“They’re both such creative players and they make so much happen out of what seems like nothing,” he said. “They just do it in different ways.
“The differences between both those guys presents a lot of challenges for other teams.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find many more team-friendly contracts like Rust’s. His deal has two years left at $3.5 million per season. Another year like the one he just had and he’ll surely be getting a significant raise, either in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
That would help things on the home front. Rust’s wife is set to deliver the couple’s first child this spring.
“Maybe in May, when the baby is born, I’ll get a little more dad strength,” Rust joked. “I’m just really excited about this year, and everything that it brings.”
Sullivan seems to be, as well. And Rust is likely one of the primary reasons.
“He’s a great person, I think he’s a good pro,” said Sullivan, as his team prepares for Wednesday’s opener in Philadelphia.
“He lives the right way and makes good choices and, because of that, he gives himself the best chance to be successful.”