It’s not hard to figure out why Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan thinks his team made a hasty, inglorious exit from the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“To win in the playoffs, you can’t be a high-risk team,” Sullivan said at his season-ending press conference. “You’ve got to have a certain discipline to your game on both sides of the puck. It’s not always about scoring goals.”
When Sullivan is bemoaning his team’s lack of defensive conscience, it’s easy to make assumptions about which players he is referring to. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang. They all have riverboat gambler reputations to one extent or another.
But a closer look at the numbers from this season identifies another forward who may have been the most high-risk, high-reward player on the roster, and he has a very different reputation.
It’s winger Bryan Rust.
When Rust was on the ice at five-on-five, the Penguins gave up 2.39 goals per 60 minutes. That’s the second-highest figure on the team, trailing only Malkin’s 2.83.
Offensively, the Penguins scored 2.83 goals per 60 minutes when Rust was on the ice. That’s the third-highest figure on the team, behind Sidney Crosby’s 3.93 and Jake Guentzel’s 2.76.
The fact that Rust is the only player to appear in the top three of both lists is problematic.
The Penguins aren’t paying Rust $3.5 million annually to be a boom-or-bust player. He’s asked to use his high-end skating ability to create problems on the forecheck, play a sound two-way game and chip in offensively when he can.
If the Penguins believe Rust has adopted an unnecessarily risky style of play that hurts their efforts to be harder to play against, he could easily be a trade candidate as the club faces a salary cap crunch and a desire to change things up after a poor finish to the season.
There is some strong evidence, though, that Rust hasn’t lost his defensive conscience and become a go-for-broke forward. His real problem is inconsistency.
In his first 29 games, Rust had one goal and a minus-4 rating.
Starting with a Dec. 11 hat trick in Chicago, he had 17 goals and a plus-15 rating in his next 38 games.
He closed out the year with no points and a minus-5 rating in the final five games of the regular season and four playoff games against the New York Islanders.
Ultimately, the Penguins don’t need Rust to tone down his style of play. They don’t need to trade him, either.
They do, however, need him to show much more consistency in his game.
Rust knows it too, as his self-assessment of the season clearly shows.
“Wildly inconsistent, I’d say, and that’s something I’d like to improve on,” Rust said. “Whether it’s some sort of different mental approach I’ve got to take to kind of try to dial in the whole year as far as trying to with confidence ups and downs, that’s definitely something I’m going to try to correct.”