Mark Madden: Bryan Rust was the first to return to the Penguins, but will he be the last?

Bryan Rust left money on the table.

The right winger’s new six-year contract with the Penguins has an average annual value of $5.125 million, a raise of a mere $1.625 million. Over the last three seasons, Rust has scored 73 goals in 171 games.

Rust is 30. This was his only chance to cash in. He seems to have traded money for term, but likely could have got a six-year deal elsewhere, too, and for more dough.

Rust wanted to stay a Penguin. He wanted to keep skating on Sidney Crosby’s line. He compromised his paycheck for stats and, he might wrongly think, a chance to win.

Or perhaps he’s just happy.

At any rate, Rust and his family can probably get by on the $30.75 million Rust will earn over the next six years.

It’s a good deal for the Penguins. Rust is a solid, hard-working, versatile player, a perfect fit on any line but particularly with Crosby and Jake Guentzel. If part of this offseason’s aim is placating Crosby, keeping that trio intact is a good start. Crosby loathes change.

Rust seemed the least likely to return among him, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. But Rust was the first to return.

Will Rust be the last?

Ron Hextall is also probable to return. The Penguins’ reclusive, quirky GM got Rust’s deal done. That seems unlikely to be followed by his dismissal.

Some feel it’s too early to fire Hextall. Perhaps, but this is the most significant offseason in recent Penguins history, not a proving ground. It sets the table for the rest of Crosby’s career.

The Penguins have 15 rostered players under contract, $24 million in remaining cap space.

The Penguins could keep Letang or Malkin and still navigate legit change on their roster. Keeping both is possible but ill-advised.

Retaining either is ill-advised in terms of turning the page on four straight first-round playoff losses. But that depends on what the goal is for owners Fenway Sports Group. (Maybe they don’t yet know very much about hockey.)

If the goal is to make the playoffs, add a 17th year to that streak, lose in the first round, satisfy Crosby and burnish fan interest via nostalgia and false hope, re-signing a big name makes sense.

That big name should be Letang.

Malkin is a spent force 5-on-5. Maybe his surgically-repaired knee hasn’t yet come all the way back. Maybe it never will. Malkin had just 22 even-strength points in 41 games, was minus-10, his mistakes were plentiful and he won’t adjust his game to being 35.

Malkin still has great moments, especially on the power play. But he has lousy hours.

The Penguins won 20 and lost 14 before Malkin returned. They won 29 and lost 26 (including playoffs) after he returned. That’s a winning percentage of .588 vs .527.

More significantly, the team’s 200-foot structure and discipline weren’t the same after Malkin returned. (Told you so.) His freelancing trickled down to others, particularly Letang.

Letang is a more important player than Malkin. Letang is currently better.

Letang averaged a team-high 25:47 of ice and posted a career-best 68 points. He played 78 games. He and Malkin are the same age, but Letang is in much better shape and far more dedicated to the maintenance thereof. He’s more likely to see out a long-term contract in effective fashion.

Like Malkin, Letang can be mistake-prone. But he has more ability to cover up for his errors.

If you lose Letang, the defensive corps falls apart. He does everything. He skates, he hits, he carries and moves the puck.

Letang is the No. 1 defenseman. Malkin is the second-line center.

Malkin might be more affordable. Letang will get more demand than Malkin for the reasons listed above.

Letang is more mercenary. Malkin is more likely to come down from what he wants.

Will the Penguins keep Letang? Will they keep Malkin? Will it be none of the above?

One thing seems certain: Once Letang hits free agency, he’s gone. Highest bidder, period.

#Mark #Madden #Bryan #Rust #return #Penguins

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