The Washington Capitals will open the NHL season with clipped wings and a prayer Friday night.
"We have a good system, good goaltending, good defense and good centermen," said coach Tom McVie. "But we're getting no effort from our wings."
Center Ron Lalonde, enjoying his most productive camp, was switched to left wing Friday in what may be the forerunner of several moves to bolster the forward lines. Just about anyone except rookie defenseman Robert Picard had best be prepared for similar experimentation.
"We don't want to start fooling with him," said general manager Max McNab. "But anyone else who can help up front may get a call. We know we're going to have a hard-working crew again, but we'd like to have more offense."
Center Guy Charron, the team's leading scorer of last season, skated at left wing in the final period of Thursday's 4-2 loss to Cincinnati and exerted strong offensive pressure in company with Gerry Meehan and Bob Sirois. Shifting Charron to a line with Meehan, however, would leave Washington with a one-line offensive most vulnerable to teams with strong checking units.
Besides, Charron, a winger in his Detroit days, wants no part of a return to mucking in the corners.
"Lalonde at left wing is a strong possibility," McVie said. "He's that kind of hockey player. He's a good faceoff man in tough situations and a good penalty killer. I think if I asked him to play defense he could handle that."
Lalonde needn't worry about that last alternative, because the Capitals have eight defensemen on hand right now and they have performed creditably thus far.
The tandems of Yvon Labre and Jack Lynch, Picard and Bryan Watson, and Gord Smith and Gord Lane seem destined to start the season, unless Rick Green should regain 100 per cent use of that nagging right wrist.
"I'm waiting for Dr. (Pat) Palumbo to give me the O.K. to go all out," Green said. "I hope I can play Friday. It's frustrating sitting around, and I've been sitting around since February."
The Capitals will start the season with no fewer than six defensemen, although the eventual plan is to play five, along with a full four forward lines. Picard would be the swing man, playing every other shift on either the left or right side.
Picard is a young man of limitless potential and, if the wing situation has management mumbling, he has the brass thanking someone upstairs that he isn't playing for the Quebec Nordiques.
"He's very good," McVie said. "He's getting more aware, more deliberate and more confident each time out. He can play. No doubt about that."
"I can feel the confidence getting to me," Picard agreed. "I'm having less problem taking the puck out. And we're (Picard ad Watson) getting used to each other, to passing back and forth. That's where success comes from."
Gary Smith is one of those guys who is not a training-camp player, so there is some anxiety about what he can do in goal at age 33. But Bernie Wolfe has left no doubt. He has been superb during the first three weeks of training.
"Bernie is stronger and he has more endurance," McVie said. "He's passing the puck - he knocked it right out of the zone in London. And when the wingers are cutting in, he's using the stick much better. He's not in Gerry Cheevers' class yet, but we'll get him there."
Obviously, there is no shortage of center ice strength. But centers can't score if the wings don't get them the puck, or score occasionally themselves to loosen up the defense.
"It doesn't matter where the goals come from," McVie said. "We have three centermen who should score 30 goals. But we've got to have the kind of wingers that get them the puck. A guy who isn't a goal-scoring winger has to adapt, muck in the corners and fight for the puck."
McVie does not rule out the possibility of carrying seven or eight defensemen and using the excess as forwards. McNab is busy scanning waiver lists from around the league, but he acknowledges that "40-goal wing men do not appear on draft lists."
"We just want some of our wing men to score at a normal rate," McNab said. "(Craig) Patrick is the only wing man to do the job offensively."
McNab hopes Patrick's return from a severely sprained right ankle, tentatively scheduled for Monday, will produce a spark.
"(Guy) Charron was the igniter last year and he has indicated he'll soon be ready to do so again," McNab said. "On the wings, we can only hope Patrick will do it this year."
"I'm very, very concerned about the wings," McVie said. "We're not getting any production at all from them. The July lineup never seems to turn out like the September lineup. We thought we had three guys on the left side and three guys on the right side who could succeed in this league. But the way it looks now, any winger with anything on the ball should play on this team."
At last season's end, the left-side fixtures were Ace Bailey, Patrick, Tony White and, when he was healthy, Sirols. On the right side were Bill Riley, Hartland Monahan and Bill Collins. That still could be the lineup on opening night. But don't bet on it.