Coming into this season, Capitals right wing Matt Bradley had a total of 26 career NHL goals in 277 games. His single-season best was nine, accomplished in his rookie season of 2001-02 with the San Jose Sharks. Despite those modest accomplishments, Bradley believes he is capable of greater offensive achievements.
Brian Willsie and Jeff Halpern
left the Capitals via free agency last summer. The duo combined for 30 goals with the Caps last season. Although the Capitals added offensive threats Alexander Semin
and Richard Zednik over the summer, Caps coach Glen Hanlon hopes the production those new players bring will amount to gravy. In that vein, he hopes that some holdovers like Bradley can boost their output a bit in 2006-07, making up the goals Willsie and Halpern scored last season.
“Halpie and Willie moved to other teams,” notes Hanlon. “They scored 30 goals for us [last season]. We hope that can be made up with offensive improvements from [Brian] Sutherby, [Matt] Bradley, [Brooks] Laich and those types of players. We think they can make up those 30 goals. We hope the goals we get from Semin and Zednik will be ‘bonus’ goals.”
Bradley is on board with that.
“I totally agree with him,” says the rugged right winger, when informed of Hanlon’s equation. “I feel like I am capable of scoring 20 goals in this league. I am going to go in with the mentality this year that I can score 20 or more. It’s always nice to chip in on offense, but I am not going to forget my defensive responsibilities and how I play. But I totally believe the three of us can contribute more offensively.”
The defensive responsibilities Bradley speaks of are what allowed him to carve out a niche for himself in the NHL. He led the league with a plus-22 as a rookie with the San Jose Sharks in 2001-02, despite averaging just 8:27 per night in ice time. Anyone regularly tuning into the late night West Coast games on Direct TV that season was treated to a regular display of Bradley and his linemates barreling into corners and hammering bodies.
The nine goals and 22 points in just 54 games and limited ice time that season hint at some untapped offensive ability.
“I think Brads scored 30 goals before in juniors [33 goals with Kingston in 1997-98],” says Hanlon. “I know in [Kentucky] he scored 21 or 22 each year. If you can score 20 goals in the American Hockey League as a first- or second-year-player, you can score.”
Bradley actually scored 23 goals as an AHL rookie with Kentucky in 1998-99, setting a team rookie record in the process. He followed up with a 22-goal campaign in 1999-00. Bradley led the club with six postseason goals in nine games in the 2000 Calder Cup playoffs.
This fall, Bradley tied for the Capitals team lead in preseason goals with two, including an overtime game-winner against his former Pittsburgh teammates. An injury kept him out of the lineup for the first two games of the regular season, but he potted his first goal of 2006-07 in his third game. That was on Oct. 18 against Florida, and he beat the Panthers’ Eddie Belfour on a shot that could charitably be described as a “change-up.”
But as the saying goes, they don’t ask “how,” they ask “how many.” While Bradley believes he can pump in 20, Hanlon knows that Bradley’s role will have more to do with his final totals.
“You can’t go to a player before the game and tell them, ‘Look, you guys are a line that is going to create energy and you can’t get scored on,’ and then at the end of the year say, ‘You should have scored 15 goals this year,’” explains Hanlon. “Sutsy got 14 goals and that’s wonderful. Most nights I told that line to be responsible defensively and that they were going to check the [opposition’s] top line. I think a lot of players’ individual statistics come with how a coach ends up playing them.
“I want all players to be able to enjoy the journey. Sometimes if you say to a player, ‘Look, I think you should score 20 goals,’ when you haven’t scored 20 goals before [you’re asking too much]. I think for your first 20-goal season, you just let it happen. I think it’s a lot of pressure to say, ‘I’ve got to score 20 goals,’ because you don’t know how the coach is going to play you.”
The line Hanlon refers to is the CBS Line of Bradley, Sutherby and Ben Clymer. That trio was formed in November of last season and helped solidify the team after a rocky start. The trio remained together for most of the rest of the season. The speed of Bradley and Clymer made for a consistently strong forecheck and the work ethic possessed by all three players was second to none.
With Clymer having been moved back to his natural defense position this season, Sutherby and Bradley have been joined at various times by newcomer Donald Brashear and sophomore Brooks Laich
. When the team practiced at Ashburn on Monday in preparation for its upcoming trip through four Northeast Division cities, Rico Fata was skating on the left side of the Sutherby-Bradley tandem.
Bradley is comfortable with whichever winger winds up on the left.
“No matter how the lines get shaped, if Ben stays back on defense that’s fine,” he said during training camp. “Brooksie is a great player with a good defensive conscience. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things, and I think that is a good thing about our team. No one is strictly offense or strictly defense. Everybody can do everything, so I don’t think it really matters who is paired together.”
Sutherby echoed his linemate’s opinion.
“We’re just a group that’s going to go out and work hard, and we communicate a lot on the ice which will probably make it easy for a third party coming in,” says the Caps center. “We just like to get into their zone, cycle the puck and create as much havoc as we can and not be too fancy. Either way, if it’s a player who is maybe a little more fancy, that might help. It would bring a little more skill to the line. Or vice versa, a little more work ethic would help too.”
Bradley watched with interest as ex-linemate Clymer moved to the backline in the early days of camp.
“He is a great skater, he is good at handling the puck and he has a great shot,” assessed Bradley. “He is can’t miss at forward or defense. Obviously I really loved playing with him and Sutsy. But if they want to keep him back on defense I think he’ll do a great job back there.”
Clymer and Bradley were both free agents brought to Washington after the lockout. Both played well enough in their first seasons as a Capital to merit multi-year contract extensions over the summer.
“It’s always nice to have a two-year deal,” he admits. “It can help you relax a little bit. But I love playing here. I love the guys and I love the coaching staff. For me to be able to come back for two more years is a great feeling.”
Whether Bradley scores five goals or 20 or some figure in between, he is an asset on the ice because of the intangibles he brings: speed, strength (he won the Sharks’ annual rookie camp fitness award three times in four years), work ethic, character, and a willingness to stand up for his teammates.
Thirteen different Capitals had fighting majors last season, but Bradley led the club with eight. That’s twice as many as any of his teammates had. With the Penguins in 2003-04, he was second on the team with 11 fighting majors. As a rookie with San Jose, he had a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” recording a goal, assist and fight in the same game.
At Monday’s practice in Ashburn, Bradley scored a pretty goal, beating Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig during shootout practice. He raised his arms triumphantly and skated back to center ice, arms still in the air but his facial expression unchanged. This overzealous celebration became a bit much for snipers Semin and Alex Ovechkin
, who soon ambushed him from behind. They pulled Bradley’s sweater up over his head and tackled him in a playful display of faux rough-housing.
“This is the third team I’ve been on now,” says Bradley, “and I always get along great with all the guys. But last year was the closest team I’ve ever been a part of, and I think it showed on the ice. We stuck together and when people counted us out we always came back and showed a lot of character. It’s a lot of fun to come back and see all the guys. There is a very excited feeling in the room and we’re looking forward to big things this year.”
Whatever personal goals Bradley has for himself take a backseat to the team’s goal of competing for an landing a playoff berth next spring.
“Myself personally,” he starts, “and I think the whole team and coaching staff and the organization, I don’t think we’re going to settle for anything less than making the playoffs. That’s been my mindset ever since the end of last year. That’s why we’re excited to get back. That’s our goal. There is no reason with the personnel we have here and the coaching staff that we can’t make the playoffs. Anything less would be a disappointment.”