For the better part of three months, various members of the Washington Capitals have tiptoed around the issues afflicting the team. They’d mention leadership, commitment and discipline, but nothing specific enough to explain yet another postseason collapse.
On Wednesday, though, former Capital Matt Bradley stopped speaking in generalities and took the issues head on. Among them were the team’s lack of discipline, Alexander Semin’s lack of effort and a caste system that rewards underperforming stars.
“I mean, there’s reasons why,” said Bradley, who signed with the Florida Panthers in July as an unrestricted free agent. “We had some guys who didn’t show up in the playoffs, and I’ll leave them unnamed. I think our locker room was maybe a little bit too nonchalant, and guys weren’t disciplined the way they should have been.
“Those two things,” he added, “are big things.”
If anyone knows, it’s Bradley. He was here for the rebuild. He was a vital part of the team that claimed the Presidents’ Trophy in the 2009-10 season. He was in the dressing room and the team meetings as each of the past two postseasons came to a grisly end. And the 33-year-old winger’s comments Tuesday were in line with what those on the outside have suspected for years.
Asked to detail the Capitals’ discipline problems, Bradley told Ottawa’s TEAM 1200 radio: “It wasn’t like guys were going out the night before a game. It was not being ready to practice or missing practice with questionable injuries. Not being focused.”
Then, Bradley took aim at Semin.
“I don’t mind saying Alexander Semin’s name, because he’s one guy who has so much talent, he could easily be the best player in the league, and just for whatever reason, just doesn’t care,” Bradley said. “You need him to be your best player, or one of your best players, and when he doesn’t show up, you almost get the sense that he wants to be back in Russia.”
Semin scored four goals in Washington’s first six playoff games this past spring, but he mustered only an assist in Games 2-4 vs. the Lightning.
His performance in Washington’s collapse was so lackluster, Russia did not extend an invitation for him to join Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the national team for the world championships.
Bradley also criticized the Capitals’ caste system in which star players skip practice, escape criticism and continue to receive ample ice time despite repeated on-ice transgressions.
It never seemed right, but now we have a former team leader saying as much.
“When you’re paying your top guys a lot of money and those guys carry you through the whole season, and if one of them isn’t going, it’s very hard not to play them, and I understand that that’s tough,” he said. “But I think in the end, if you want to win, sometimes you have to sit some of those guys down and maybe send a message and try to get them going.”
On the subject of Ovechkin, Bradley called his former captain “all in” — a reference to how hard he plays and his commitment on the ice. Bradley did, however, say Ovechkin “has some growing up to do as far as taking care of himself.”
Bradley did not expound on the comment. But he didn’t need to.
Ovechkin himself hinted after the season that he planned to report to training camp in better shape.
As word of Bradley’s brutally honest assessment spread through a mostly empty Kettler Capitals Iceplex on a sunny August afternoon, the reaction of the handful of team members on hand was telling.
It was a collective shrug. As in, “We know.”
Assistant coach Bob Woods declined to discuss Bradley’s comments, though he was certainly aware of the brewing controversy. Left wing Matt Hendricks also took a pass.
Defenseman John Carlson defended Semin, calling him a good person and the “most exciting player in the NHL.” Carlson did not, however, challenge the gist of Bradley’s other assertions.
“Whenever a team doesn’t succeed, they ask, ‘What could we do better?’ ” Carlson said. “There are a lot of things we can change. And there are a lot of things that will change.”
The first indication that change was afoot arrived earlier this summer. The players General Manager George McPhee added — Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun — are considered high-character guys. All but Brouwer, who turned 26 on Tuesday, are 30 or older.
That’s no coincidence.
Then, about a week ago, Coach Bruce Boudreau acknowledged that the upcoming season will take on “a more serious” tone, beginning with training camp.
In recent days, players have acknowledged that they expect camp to be more demanding. That they anticipate fewer optional practices during the regular season, too. At least one said he wouldn’t be stunned to see a star player stapled to the bench for poor play.
There was no outrage Wednesday at the team’s Arlington practice facility because, deep down, what Bradley said was spot on.
The question is whether any current Capitals will demand such accountability in the locker room where it matters, instead of on the radio after they’ve left town.