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 Penguins’ new six-year right winger has an average annual value of $5.125 million, up from just $1.625 million. In the last three seasons, Rust has scored 73 goals in 171 games.

Rust is 30. This was his only chance to make money. He appears to have traded money for tenure but probably could have gotten a six-year deal elsewhere and for more money.

Rust wanted to stay a penguin. He wanted to keep skating on Sidney Crosby’s line. He risked his paycheck on stats and, as he might mistakenly think, on a chance to win.

Or maybe he’s just happy.

Either way, Rust and his family can probably get by on the $30.75 million Rust will make over the next six years.

It’s good business for the penguins. Rust is a solid, hardworking, versatile player who is a perfect match for any line, but especially Crosby and Jake Guentzel. If part of the goal this offseason is to placate Crosby, keeping this trio intact is a good place to start. Crosby abhors 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 will likely return as well. The penguins’ reclusive, quirky GM closed Rust’s deal. It is unlikely that his dismissal will follow.

Some say it’s too early to fire Hextall. Maybe, but this is the most significant off-season in penguins’ recent history, not a proving ground. It sets the table for the rest of Crosby’s career.

The Penguins have 15 players signed on the roster, $24 million in remaining cap space.

The Penguins could keep Letang or Malkin and still make legitimate changes to their roster. Keeping both is possible, but not advisable.

Keeping both isn’t wise when it comes to turning the page on four straight playoff losses in a row. But that depends on what the goal is for the owners of Fenway Sports Group. (Maybe they don’t know much about hockey yet.)

When the goal is to make the playoffs, add a 17th year to that series, lose in the first round, please Crosby, and fuel fan interest through nostalgia and false hope, it makes sense to recapture a big name oblige.

That big name should be Letang.

Malkin is a 5v5 Consumed Power. Maybe his surgically repaired knee hasn’t fully come back yet. Maybe it never will. Malkin had only 22 equal points in 41 games, was minus 10, his errors were numerous and he will not adjust his game to 35.

Malkin still has big moments, especially on the power play. But he has bad 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 win percentage of 0.588 vs. 0.527.

More importantly, the team’s 200-foot structure and discipline weren’t the same after Malkin’s return. (I told you so.) His freelance work has spread to others, especially Letang.

Letang is a more important player than Malkin. Letang is doing better at the moment.

Letang averaged a team-high 25:47 on ice and had a career-best 68 points. He played 78 games. He and Malkin are the same age, but Letang is in much better shape and is much more devoted to grooming. He’s more likely to secure a long-term deal in an effective manner.

Like Malkin, Letang can be prone to errors. But he has more ways to cover up his mistakes.

If you lose Letang, the Defense Corps will fall apart. He does everything. He runs, he bats, he carries and moves the puck.

Letang is the #1 defender. Malkin is the center of the second line.

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

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: as soon as Letang reaches the free hand, he’s gone. Highest bidder, period.

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