Bryan Rust didn’t consider the possibility.
At least not until Sunday night.
Game 7 of the Penguins’ first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers, a contest Rust and his teammates lost, 4-3, in overtime, was potentially his final game in a Penguins jersey.
“Not one time,” Rust said during the team’s exit interview session in Cranberry on Tuesday. “(There was) not one time that I thought we were going to lose. But obviously, I was wrong. Obviously, as soon as the game ended and sitting in the locker room and sitting on the bench and the airport and stuff, those things crossed my mind. Obviously, never a great thought. It happened a few weeks earlier than I thought.”
In roughly eight weeks, Rust is slated to become an unrestricted free agent. Having just completed the final year of a four-year contract with a tidy salary cap hit of $3.5 million, Rust is pretty upfront about his intentions this summer.
“You’d like to maximize everything,” Rust said. “But I think for me, it’s just getting to a point where I feel like I’ve gotten what I’ve earned and what I feel like I’m worth. I feel like I’ve played to a higher level than what my contract has said the last few years. Moving forward, just getting something’s that’s fair and I feel like that will benefit me and my family moving forward.”
The Penguins have certainly benefited from Rust’s play during his tenure with the organization.
A third-round pick (No. 80 overall) in 2010, Rust broke through as a bottom-six depth forward and helped the franchise win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017. Even in that limited deployment, he developed A reputation for scoring in key moments as he is the only player to score multiple game-winning goals in Game 7s.
Over the past three seasons, Rust’s game grew into him becoming a legitimate top-six forward as he has reached the 20-goal mark all three campaigns, all of which have been limited in some fashion either due to the pandemic or his own health woes .
This past season, he appeared in 60 games and scored a career-best 58 points (24 goals, 34 assists) while averaging 18:46 of ice time per contest.
He knows he has a good situation with the Penguins, particularly on the right wing of the top line with franchise center Sidney Crosby.
“First of all, I’d love to return to the team,” Rust said. “I obviously love it here. Pittsburgh is a place that I’ve been here for a while. I have a lot of memories, started my family here and all that stuff. This place holds a special place in my heart. … There haven’t been real amplified talks yet but we’ll see where that goes.”
The Penguins have some bigger matters — ie more prominent players — to make decisions on. Star forward Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang are also pending unrestricted free agents and their statuses with the franchise will dictate how the team’s other roster maneuvers, including Rust, unfold.
Rust understands that hierarchy.
“The decision (for Rust) is based on me and my family,” Rust said. “Those guys have their own things to worry about. They’ve got their own priorities and families and such. They’re at different points in their career with their past contracts and stuff (compared) to my past contracts and stuff. It’s a little bit different. I just try to think about myself and what’s good for my family.”
Rust is going to get a good contract this summer. The only question is which team it will be with.
“I’m not looking to rob anyone,” Rust said. “I just want what I deem as fair and a reasonable contract. I think and I hope that something is going to get worked on.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .