The Pittsburgh Penguins have their top six forwards under contract for the upcoming season. Despite Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin entering their 35 and 36-year-old seasons, the Penguins boast one of the most talented first two lines in hockey.
One of the more intriguing questions the Penguins and coach Mike Sullivan must answer heading into this season is where exactly does Bryan Rust fit?
First Line Connection
The Penguins had limited options last season. Malkin missed half the year recovering from major knee surgery, and Jeff Carter and Evan Rodrigues split the second line center duties. With only one superstar center in the lineup, the Pens rolled out a top line combination of Rust, Crosby, and Jake Guentzel most of the year.
That combination was fantastic for the Penguins. Despite missing 20 games, Rust still put up 24 goals. Crosby netted his tenth 30-goal season, and Guentzel registered his second career 40-goal campaign. At the start of February of '22, the line was rolling, contributing over 40% of the team's goals over a stretch of five games.
Their steadiness continued into the playoffs as well. Despite their first-round elimination, the first line was dominant. According to Moneypuck advanced statistics, Guentzel-Crosby-Rust, was the most productive line in hockey, with their expected goals for over 80%. They out-produced and out-chanced the opponents more effectively than the likes of the Connor McDavid line in Edmonton and the Mackinnon line in Colorado.
Malkin Needs A Running Mate
The Penguins would be very reasonable to keep their first line together for this upcoming season. However, the option remains that Rust could see time on the wing of Evgeni Malkin's line.
With the health of Jason Zucker constantly in flux and Rickard Rakell playing well on either line in his brief stint in Pittsburgh, the Penguins may ask Rust to be a steadying presence on the second line.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have not had a consistent partner for the second line since James Neal's tenure in the black and gold. Crosby has had winger after winger to be his right-hand, and Malkin continues to play with the wingers that are left. Over the past several seasons, Coach Sullivan has chosen to balance the top six by dropping Rust to the second line. This past season was no different.
In March, the Penguins needed a spark, having relied so much on the offensive production of the first line. Rust dropped on the right wing of Malkin, and Malkin found his game after battling inconsistencies throughout his first month back on the ice.
Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust also have a productive history for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Rust was a key contributor on the wing for Evgeni Malkin for their 2016 Stanley Cup run. Rust also had his offensive awakening playing on Malkin's line. After beginning his career as a 15-goal player, he erupted for 27 goals in the 2019-2020 season. Who was his primary center? Evgeni Malkin.
Coach Mike Sullivan has plenty of options for the 2022-2023 season. Where should Rust play? To maximize the top six forwards, the Penguins should slot him next to Evgeni Malkin and let Rickard Rakell play the right wing on Crosby's line.
However, it is more likely that Rust starts the year on the first line with Sid and Guentzel in the hopes that both Jason Zucker and Rakell can find chemistry with Malkin. One thing the Penguins can be sure of, whatever line Bryan Rust is on will be better because of him.
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