Jared McCann

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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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Bjorkstrand, Dvorak highlight this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: Eberle had a disappointing first half of the campaign, but he’s picked up the pace lately with four goals and six points in seven games. He’s a tough one to gauge. Certainly when he’s at his best, he’s worth owning and he had some very strong seasons earlier in his career. The last two seasons though have featured stints of strong play from Eberle, but he’s been more miss than hit over that span. There’s the hope that his recent play will be the start of a second half turnaround, but that’s far from a safe bet. What I will suggest is that you should be weary of him. Pick him up for now and hope for the best, but be prepared to drop him in a couple weeks if things aren’t playing out as you wished.

Tanner Pearson, Canucks – LW: Pearson’s first full season with Vancouver got off to a quiet start. He had just two goals and six points in 18 games through Nov. 10th. He’s found another gear since then though with 12 goals and 31 points in 31 games. He’s been playing alongside Bo Horvat and that combo has worked well together. With Pearson still only owned in 37% of Yahoo leagues, you should check on his status in your league and pick him up if he’s available.

Phillip Danault, Canadiens – C: Danault is on a three-game point streak with a goal and five points over that span. That’s a solid start to what will hopefully be a longer hot streak, but even putting that aside, he’s had a great campaign with 12 goals and 36 points in 50 contests. His center-only eligibility means that he’s still something of a borderline option in standard leagues, but he’s worth taking a chance on while he’s off and he’s good enough to hang onto even when he’s not.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Blue Jackets – LW/RW: Bjorkstrand scored five goals and seven points in four games from Dec. 16-21, but in the last game during that stretch he suffered a rib/cartilage contusion and an oblique strain. He made his return from those injuries on Sunday and picked up right where he left off with another two goals. It helps that he’s been averaging 17:18 minutes this season, which is a huge leap from the 12:20 minutes per game of work he got in 2018-19 when he finished with 36 points in 77 games.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G: Smith has certainly not been an ideal goaltender this season, but he’s been great lately and has asserted himself as the Oilers’ starter in the process. So far in January he’s 5-0-1 with a 2.50 GAA and .924 save percentage in six games. I don’t trust him to stay strong for the rest of the second half, but if you’re in need of goaltending help, Smith is probably your best option right now among those who are available.

Anthony Cirelli, Lightning – C: Cirelli had a hat trick on Friday, which gives him six points in his last three games. Immediately following the break might be a good time to bet on the Lightning in general. They’ll kick off with a four-game road trip that takes them to Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose. The Stars are a tough team defensively, but the other three teams in the trip are pretty vulnerable and that could lead to some high scoring games for Tampa Bay in the near future.

Radko Gudas, Capitals – D: If you want help offensively, Gudas isn’t a great bet. He has contributed two goals and 14 points in 49 games, so he’s not a pure stay-at-home defneseman, but he’s very useful in other fantasy categories. He’s tied for sixth in plus/minus at 22 and ranks fifth among defenseman with 135 hits. He’s also been taking a lot of shots lately, accumulating 19 in his last seven games. He’s more of a situation pickup to grab if you’re hurting in categories that are a bit easier to neglect than the more eye-catching offensive statistics.

Alexander Steen, Blues – LW/RW: Steen had a terrible start to the season with five assists in his first 24 games. He may have turned a corner though with four goals and nine points in his last nine contests. This might just be a hot streak and if that’s the case then he’s only worth a short-term pickup. However, Steen’s a good enough player that he might end up having a strong second half of the campaign.

Christian Dvorak, Coyotes – C/LW: Dvorak has 13 goals and 30 points in 51 games in 2019-20, which puts him in that borderline range where he could conceivably be on a fantasy squad year round without looking out of place, but in many cases there are better options out there. For now though he’s hot, having recorded a point in each of his last four games, so if you’re looking for a short-term pickup, he’s an option worth considering, especially given his left wing eligibility.

Zach Parise, Wild – LW: Parise isn’t the star he once was, but the 35-year-old is having a great season with 18 goals and 30 points in 48 games. Right now he’s on a goal scoring streak with four markers in his last three games, so he’s worth considering right now, to ride for as long as he’s hot. It’s worth adding that aside from a bad start to the season where he scored three goals and had no assists in 13 games, he’s been a pretty stable contributor in 2019-20, so he’s also not a bad player to grab simply as an injury replacement if you have a hole to fill on the left wing.

Players You May Want To Drop

Antti Raanta, Coyotes – G: Raanta made his return from a lower-body injury on Saturday, but was chased from that contest after allowing six goals on 18 shots. That’s not the primary reason I’m recommending dropping him though. The All-Star break is just around the corner and Darcy Kuemper will likely return shortly after it. Once he does, Raanta will be relegated to backup duties and won’t have much value as a result.

Dougie Hamilton, Hurricanes – D: Hamilton is still owned in 86% of Yahoo leagues and unfortunately, I’d advise that you drop him unless you’re in a keeper league. Hamilton has had an amazing season, but after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left fibula, he’s likely to miss most if not all of the rest of the campaign. To be fair, we don’t know exactly how long Hamilton will be out because Carolina didn’t provide a timetable, but this is a major injury and half the season is already done so the situation is rather bleak.

Esa Lindell, Stars – D: Lindell had a five-game point streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 9, recording eight assists over that span. He’s been held off the scoresheet over his last four games though, with the lone silver lining being his goal on Jan. 14th. He’s a solid defenseman, but not quite good enough offensively to warrant holding onto at all times unless you’re particularly hurting for blueliners or you’re in a deep league.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann had a good run from Jan. 5-14 with four goals and five points in his last five games, but he’s been held off the scoresheet in his last three contests. He’s a solid secondary scorer for the Penguins, but isn’t good enough to hold onto outside of his hot streaks. For that reason, I’d recommend dropping him for now and just keeping an eye on him if you’re interesting in grabbing him again once he starts to heat up.

Rasmus Sandin, Maple Leafs – D: Sandin was called up on Jan. 13th and made a great first impression with two assists on Jan. 14th. That excited some fantasy owners given the 19-year-old’s potential, but Sandin was held off the scoresheet in the two games that followed. I think Sandin will eventually be a great defenseman, but right now he’s mostly with the Leafs to fill a hole. He’s only averaged 16:03 minutes over his three games since being summoned. I don’t think he’s going to have much use to fantasy owners in standard leagues in the near future.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Crosby’s return makes resilient Penguins diligent, dangerous

PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s messages can be relentless. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach peppers his team with a handful of mantras that seemingly run on a loop during every practice, every period, sometimes every shift.

They run from ”play the right way” to ”get to our game” to ”keep it simple.” All of them code words of sorts to a star-laden roster that in recent years got so caught up in its own offensive talent it occasionally forgot to do the little things like, say, play responsibly on both ends of the ice.

No more. The sometimes-careless group that was outclassed, outsmarted and outworked while getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs last spring has been replaced by a team that’s returned to the NHL’s elite through a mix of grit, resiliency and maturity.

Tuesday night’s 7-3 romp over Minnesota gave the Penguins their fourth consecutive victory and drew them within four points of Washington for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division as the All-Star break looms. It’s heady territory for a group that spent the last four months watching one high-profile player after another limp down the tunnel and onto injured reserve, the most jarring being captain Sidney Crosby‘s slow skate toward the bench in the third period of a shootout victory over Chicago on Nov. 9.

Five days later Crosby underwent surgery to repair a hernia. The Penguins were in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference at the time, their season at an early tipping point. Crosby had led the charge in making sure Pittsburgh played the 200-foot game Sullivan craves. Without him, the Penguins easily could have lost their way.

Instead, they reclaimed the identity that symbolized the teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Their offensive wiggle room basically gone, the Penguins tightened things up in front of goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. They made small plays in their own end that led to big opportunities at the other.

They knew that to stay afloat in the NHL’s best division, they didn’t really have a choice.

”It was kind of a catalyst for why we had to play the game the way we did, more defensively, less risky and ultimately why we’ve been giving up fewer chances as a team,” forward Zach Aston-Reese said.

What followed was an 18-6-4 stretch that propelled Pittsburgh to fourth in the overall standings during Crosby’s 28-game absence, the second-best record in the league over that span and absurd total for a group that has missed nearly 200 man games due to injury.

”When you miss a player of Sid’s caliber, obviously the game changes a lot,” forward Jared McCann said. ”You’ve got to simplify things. You’ve got to take it one period at a time, one shift at a time and we did that. We showed we could do it and now that we have him back, we’re a deadly team.”

It sure looked like it against the Wild.

Crosby needed less than eight minutes to pick up his first point since before Halloween when he assisted on the first of Evgeni Malkin‘s two goals, an opportunity that arose thanks in part to Crosby’s mere presence.

With the Penguins on the power play, Crosby skated into the zone and fed Malkin before darting to the far post, leaving Wild forward Jason Zucker with an unenviable choice. Zucker could either stick with Crosby or try to slow down Malkin streaking down the middle. Zucker opted to shadow Crosby, giving Malkin all the room he needed to tap in Bryan Rust‘s centering pass.

”Every player is important here in locker room but Sid is captain,” Malkin said. ”We know how important again, like he is our leader. He’s great player, great teammate. … Power play is better. We’re lucky he’s back.”

And determined not to backslide into the old habits that have crept in at times since their last championship parade. Asked if Crosby’s return means the Penguins can start taking unnecessary chances knowing he is there to bail them out if necessary, McCann laughed.

”We can’t do that,” McCann said. ”We know we can’t go back to the way we started. We were a different team at the start of the year and now we’ve found our way and we know what we’ve got to do.”

Namely clear traffic in front of Jarry, an All-Star for the first time after supplanting (at least for now) Murray as the team’s top goaltender. The Wild generated few quality chances while the Penguins built a four-goal lead on Tuesday and after Minnesota drew within two early in the third, Pittsburgh responded almost immediately.

The final margin pushed the Penguins to the top spot in the NHL in goal differential, a testament to the focus they’ve brought on a regular basis. A lineup infused by new speedy, slick-skating arrivals like forward Brandon Tanev and John Marino has helped. Yet Pittsburgh’s surprising rise during Crosby’s extended layoff is due mostly to a shift in mindset and execution.

It’s a mindset Crosby stressed he has no plans to upset as he gears up for the grind ahead. Even after finishing with four points on a goal and three assists, he kept his eye on the bigger picture, channeling his inner Sullivan in the process.

”It’s going to get more difficult with every game, especially in the second half, things tend to tighten up,” Crosby said. ”We’re going to have to continue to make strides. But our work ethic and attention to detail has been pretty good throughout.”

The Penguins became diligent during Crosby’s long break. Having his familiar No. 87 back makes them dangerous.

”If we keep doing the things we’ve been doing, plus him,” Rust said, ”I think that just makes everything that much more exciting.”

Crosby dominates Wild in return to Penguins lineup

PITTSBURGH — After missing 28 games Sidney Crosby was back in the lineup for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.

He played like he never missed a day.

Crosby recorded four points in the Penguins’ 7-3 win and was at times a one-man highlight reel.

He returned to the scoresheet almost immediately when he recorded an assist on Evgeni Malkin‘s power play just 7:57 into the first period and never really slowed down after that. His best stretch came midway through the third period when he scored his sixth goal of the season to give the Penguins a 5-2 lead. It came off a great feed from Jared McCann (who had just drawn a penalty for being tripped) and bounced in off the stick of Wild defenseman Mathew Dumba. Just 39 seconds later he did this to set up Dominik Simon for a goal.

With Crosby’s regular winger — Jake Guentzel — sidelined, he spent most of his night playing alongside McCann and Simon, and all three of them had huge games.

Simon and McCann each had a goal and an assist in the win and helped team up for a highlight reel goal of their own.

The Penguins’ other superstar center, Evgeni Malkin, also had a huge game with two goals and an assist.

Without Crosby the Penguins went 18-6-4 and had the league’s best record with him out of the lineup. They looked downright dominant with him back in the lineup on Tuesday.

Related: Boudreau’s lineup card mistake forces Wild to play with only five defensemen

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.