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Rust Looking to Keep Growing as Player, Leader

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

If Bryan Rust takes his game to another level around the end of May, don't be surprised, as that's when the Penguins winger and his wife Kelsey are set to welcome their first child. 

"Maybe when the baby's born I'll get a little bit more Dad strength," Rust joked.

Impending fatherhood is just one indication of just how much Rust has grown as both a person and a player since breaking out as one of the "young guys" on the 2016 and '17 Stanley Cup championship squads.

It's been a pleasure to watch for Mike Sullivan, who first coached Rust in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League before they both ended up in Pittsburgh.

"I give Rusty so much credit for how far he's come in the time we've been together," 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. 

"From a leadership standpoint, he's just a great person. I think he's a good pro. He controls everything within his power to give himself the best chance to be successful. And then his work ethic, his willingness when he comes to the rink to put the work into to maximize his potential - I think it's also impressive."

Rust, 28, is coming off of a career year in 2019-20. He set new personal bests across the board with a team-leading 27 goals to go along with 29 assists, 56 points, a plus-14 and eight power-play goals - all in just 56 games. 

In order to build on that, Rust said he kept the same mindset this offseason that he did in the previous one, which is to keep working hard in every aspect of his game and avoid becoming complacent.

"Got to keep working at it, got to keep working hard and got to know that there are going to be guys in my rearview mirror who want to be in those spots and who are going to be playing hard," he said.

It does help that Rust has more of a defined role than he did in previous seasons. The winger has always been lauded for his versatility, which resulted in him playing up, down and around the lineup in earlier years.

But last season, Rust quietly established some terrific chemistry playing on the left wing alongside Evgeni Malkin, and has carved a niche for himself there. Sullivan said that 200-foot game is what makes him such a good complement to the Penguins superstar center.

"He has the offensive instincts to play with a player like Geno," Sullivan said. "His foot speed is a tremendous asset for Geno. Rusty helps that line create turnovers. He puts pressure on our opponents' defenseman to have to make plays under duress, which usually results in loose pucks and turnovers and opportunity presents itself. He has the ability to catch the rush if we turn the puck over or if we get caught in the offensive zone. And he's conscientious defensively. So because of all those things, we think he's a good complement to Geno."

And so is Jason Zucker, who started out on a line with Sidney Crosby after the Penguins first acquired him from Minnesota in February 2020. But the Penguins coaching staff later put him alongside Malkin and Rust, and all indications to this point are that the line has potential to be special.

"I'm really excited about it," Rust said. "I know what kind of player Zuck is. I've played with him in the past and we played together in the bubble. He's a guy with a lot of skill. He can score some goals, flies up and down the ice, but also isn't afraid to get gritty and play that north-south game. I think the ability for him and myself to use our speed to create space for Geno to do what he does best, I think that's been meshing pretty well."

Rust, who's one of Pittsburgh's top penalty killers, also saw the first extended time of his career on the power play last season. He's been practicing on the top unit alongside Crosby, Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, and is excited about the opportunity there.

All in all, there's just a lot to forward to this season for Rust, who said he'll be looking to continue growing as one of the team leaders.

"I've been around this organization for quite a long time now, and I've formed some good relationships," Rust said. "So I think going into this year, I just want to be a guy with a bit more of a voice in the locker room and be a bit more of a leader, knowing the system a bit and being older now.

"I'm really excited about this year and everything that it brings."

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