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NHL On NBCSN: What’s behind Bryan Rust’s breakout season

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After a two-year detour the Pittsburgh Penguins have rediscovered their championship identity. They are playing fast, they revamped their defense to add mobility, and they have a balanced lineup (when healthy) with four lines that can contribute. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) as one of the league’s best teams and it is the usual suspects at the top leading the way for them.

Sidney Crosby has played like the best player in the world. Evgeni Malkin is rebounding from a down year in 2018-19 and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Kris Letang has been great at the top of a dramatically improved defense, and Jake Guentzel was on track for a second straight 40-goal season before his injury. They also have had an infusion of young talent into the lineup (John Marino, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, and Teddy Blueger) to make an impact.

The surprising star of this team so far, however, has been the breakout performance of veteran forward Bryan Rust.

He enters Tuesday’s game with 21 goals and 43 total points, both of which are already new career highs. He has done that in only 35 games. That is an 82-game pace for 49 goals and 100 points!

Let’s dig into this.

Continuation of his 2018-19 finish

Rust has always been a valuable part of the Penguins’ lineup since becoming a regular in the middle of the 2015-16 season. He is an excellent defensive forward, he brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and he has always been able to chip in offense. He also has the versatility to fit into any role the team needs, whether it be as a first-line winger, a penalty killer, or a third-line winger. That solid all-around play earned him a four-year, $14 million contract extension that began a year ago.

But 30 games into that contract he scored just one goal, and it was easy to conclude that he was one of the players general manager Jim Rutherford was talking about when he criticized the team’s performance early on and that maybe some players had become content with their Stanley Cup rings and big pay days. But starting with a game on Dec. 12, 2018, Rust has been one of the most productive forwards in the entire league. He finished the 2018-19 season with 17 goals in his final 42 games (a 33-goal pace over 82 games), and in his past 77 games dating back to last season has 38 goals and 71 total points.

The Malkin effect?

Rust has spent a significant portion of his ice-time this season playing on a line next to Malkin, and there is no doubt that has helped give his production a boost. Those two have been magic together this season, and were even better when paired next to Guentzel before his injury. While it is fair to point that out, it should also be noted that a significant portion of Rust’s 5-on-5 ice-time over the previous three seasons has come on a line next to either Malkin or Crosby. So it’s not like this is the first time he’s ever played with a superstar center.

The biggest factor at play…

He is getting a more significant role in the offense

With Phil Kessel traded and all of the injuries (including Rust himself) they dealt with in the first half, the Penguins needed to someone to step in a top-line role. While Rust had seen a lot of top-line minutes in previous years, he has received consistent top-line minutes this season. That has been his role from the minute he returned to the lineup, and it has not only resulted in more time with Malkin, it has also simply resulted in more ice-time overall.

Entering play on Tuesday his ice-time average is a career-high 19:54 per game. That is a four minute per game jump from any of his previous seasons in the NHL. More ice-time means more opportunities. More opportunities more shots. All of that together means more goals.

While he has seen a slight boost to his shooting percentage (19.2 percent this season versus 12.4 percent the previous three seasons) the increased shot volume (3.1 shots per game versus 1.88 the previous three years) is probably the biggest driving factor here, and more ice-time has played a significant role in that.

The power play opportunity

Before this season Rust had played just 92 minutes on the power play in his entire career (22 seconds per game, mostly on the second unit) and had just five total power play points. This season? In 35 games he has already played 80 minutes on the power play and as of Tuesday has five goals and 12 total points on the power play.

Big picture, what you are seeing here this season is a talented player have the perfect confluence of events come together for a career year: A slight bump in shooting percentage, more ice-time, more ice-time with a great player, and an opportunity to play a meaningful role on the power play.

You should not expect him to maintain a 50-goal, 100-point pace forever, but if he keeps getting this sort of ice-time and opportunity there is every reason to believe he can continue to exceed his previous performances.

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Florence Schelling becomes first woman GM of top-level men’s team

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SC Bern of Switzerland’s National League has named Florence Schelling as its new general manager. The appointment makes her the first woman in such a role in top-level men’s hockey.

“We were looking for a young, fresh, visionary and intelligent person,” SC Bern CEO Marc Luthi told Berner Zeitung. “We looked at what the Swiss market had to offer – and came to the conclusion that there was no proven sports director available who would suit us.”

“We came to the conclusion: Florence is the person we are looking for and want,” added Luthi. “Yes, Florence will be a pioneer, probably worldwide in her new role. But she’s young, fresh, she’ll bring a new perspective and break up existing structures.”

The 31-year-old Schelling, who previously coached Switzerland’s U18 women’s team, was one of the best goaltenders in the world during her career. After debuting internationally at 15 at the 2004 Women’s World Championship, she spent the next 14 years representing Switzerland. She helped the country earn bronze at the 2012 Women’s Worlds and the 2014 Olympics, where she was voted tournament MVP. Both tournaments also saw her named best goaltender.

Before excelling on the international stage, Schelling was a four-year starter at Northeastern University and a 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award finalist.

Bern were National League champions in 2019 but ended up ninth out of 12 teams this season. One of Schelling’s first duties after she begins next week is to find a new head coach.

“I was surprised like all of you when I received the call from Marc Luthi,” said Schelling, via IIHF.com. “We had a couple of discussions about working together and they were very positive. I knew immediately that I wanted to accept the challenge. My main goal is to do a good job and bring SC Bern back to the top.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Our Line Starts podcast: Bettman’s update on NHL’s potential return

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In this episode, Liam McHugh, Brian Boucher, and Patrick Sharp react to Gary Bettman’s interview with Mike Tirico from Tuesday afternoon. Bettman addressed the conference call he and other sports commissioners had over the weekend with President Trump, and also said “nothing has been ruled out” regarding a possible return to action. Plus, Boucher and Sharp remember playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.

0:40-3:25 Boucher and Sharp give their first playoff memory
3:25-14:40 Mike Tirico interviews Gary Bettman
14:40-17:20 Most fair way to build 16-team playoff right now?
18:00-24:50 For or against playoff games at a neutral site?

[MORE: Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely]

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports