Neil Young was right ... ‘Rust Never Sleeps’.
Young had to be dialed in on some futuristic wavelength, referring to the Pittsburgh Penguins forward, Bryan Rust. Because, he’s right, that boy doesn’t sleep. It’s more likely the rest of the hockey world has slept on the Penguins winger.
Editor's Note: Drafting is only half the battle. Dominate all season long with our Season Pass! Use our NEW Lineup Adviser, get our Weekly and Rest-of-Season rankings and projections, track all of your players and more on your way to a championship! Click here for more!
The scoring shouldn’t really be surprising, still, setting career highs in goals in 36 games played is impressive and needed considering the injuries the Penguins have battled all season long. His 21 goals at the mid-point of the season wasn’t likely expected and he’s riding the effort to eclipse career highs in assists and points. Shot metrics that fueled the scoring surge are starting to turn, however, so there’s a cautionary tale in the half season success story thus far.
My contribution to the McKeen’s Hockey Yearbook included writing up Penguins players over the summer of 2019. A talented and subtly skilled forward, he’s been riding a scoring streak since his inclusion on to a scoring line midway through 2018-19. This is the blurb for Rust.
McKeen's 2019-20 Yearbook - Opportunistic and determined ... quick release ... keen positioning sense and decent overall skillset .. lacks a clear defining characteristic ... solid support option with a scoring touch ... good edges, cuts and jumps into new positions, leveraging low center of gravity ... operating pace is below game tempo ... floundered over the first 30 games (1-6-7) shuffled around with multiple linemates until fortuitously placed on a line with Crosby and Jake Guentzel for 31 games mid-December and resulted in most of his production with 16 goals in 31 games (31-16-8-24, 20.0 Sh%) ... missed nine games in the final quarter before being blanked entirely in the playoffs ... scored two shorthanded markers and added two assists ... may have been placed on the top line, but he doesn’t receive any regular power play ice time – limiting his overall production ... production is proportional to the amount of time spent on the top line – despite his utility over a larger swatch of game situations.
A solid support option with a scoring touch seems to be an appropriate overall statement for the Penguins third round draft pick in 2010. Exploring this single sentence would be beneficial. Since his production is tied to playing on a scoring unit, in 2018-19 playing with Sidney Crosby, but in 2019-20 he’s been essentially joined at the hip to Evgeni Malkin – despite his season starting late, delayed by 11 games courtesy of a hand injury sustained in preseason, and missing another three with a lower body injury in December.
Up until a season ending injury, Jake Guentzel had been the regular linemate. Since Guentzel’s injury, Dominik Kahun has taken over his spot and Rust’s production despite being a point per game pace, lacks some of the characteristics related to when he was being deployed with Malkin/Guentzel.
Determining the line’s impact can be measured against the impact of other lines in the NHL. That trio has been lighting up opposition goaltenders all season.
Using data from MoneyPuck.com we can calculate the line’s impact based on calculating the z-score, a method of standardizing a dataset to measure in degrees of standard deviation from the mean (average), instead of using absolute, or raw statistics. As expected, most lines don’t score most of the goals and the distribution here shows that effect. A smaller proportion of lines carry the offensive weight and this positive skewed distribution is a reflection of that. Most of the values depicted in this distribution will be held within the highest points, with smaller bars to the right of the bulk distribution outliers, or performing outside of the expectations of the group as a whole.
Few lines had impacts as the distribution thins to the 3-4 standard deviations bin with only 24 lines performing outside of the highest bins on the left, but the yellow marker depicts where the Guentzel, Malkin and Rust line has fared this season, as part of seven lines that are between four and five standard deviations.
Isolated within the Penguins lines, it’s a mixed bag of exceeding expected goals with the greatest gain with regular linemates, with a very small sample of time with most linemates outside of the first two lines to the furthest left of this chart.
On an individual basis, coming back from the hand injury saw him firing at career high pace. He fired five shots or more in nine games, the last one occurring in the final game before the Christmas break.
A dry spell produced very little on the power play as well. The game log below courtesy of The Hockey News, shows the differences in shots pre and post the Guentzel injury. Even with the dry spell at 5v4, he’s still maintained a point-per-game pace.
The Inevitable Downside
Arguing for a player that is exceeding current expectations to regress somehow seems like the intuitive bet, however sometimes, there are clear signs. Isolating both Rust’s on-ice and individual shot metrics shows the impact of losing Guentzel and a potential future decline. Even at a point-per-game pace, there are concerns.
For instance, there’s a noticeable downturn in scoring chances separated by danger zone. While Rust is on the ice, scoring chances at 5v5 have been decreasing overall, mostly due to a sizable big drop in low and high danger chances. Medium danger chances have stabilized after an earlier season uptick.
Isolating Rust’s impact with individual and on-ice scoring chances, the drop in high danger chances is more of a correction rather than a downturn in overall results.
His individual reduction in those metrics coincide with the on-ice metric, but his individual scoring chances are fairly stable in comparison to the reduction in on-ice chances, signified by the broken blue line in the chart below. The on-ice component of high danger chances is not as steep as his individual high scoring chance contributions. The struggles after Guentzel’s injury are apparent overall.
The Penguins winger is writing a fabulous story in 2019-20 with deeper roots embedded in 2018-19 and even deeper since his full time promotion to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s not only considered a depth forward anymore and can add plenty of value up front with a scoring touch. The writeup from the summer, seemed to nail that part – playing with skilled players will enhance his skills and solidify good contributions.