Before the Washington Capitals' fourth season began, management handed out long-term contracts to general manager Max McNab and coach Tom McVie, then sat back to await the team's entry into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The way the Capitals have been playing, it looks like a long wait. The team not only bears no resemblance to a playoff contender, it doesn't look nearly as good as last year's Capitals.

McVie is suffering in semi-silence and the search for an explanation to the team's failing elicited only one word: "Effort." The researcher was left to add "lack of." As for a prescription for change before tonight's game at St. Louis (9:05, picked up in progress by WTOP-1500), McVie's words matched the Capitals' Sunday night goal total: zero. He shook his head, sideways.

McNab paused between phone calls to offer his word of wisdom: "Chemistry." It seems this season's 2-10-2 Capitals are less compatible than H 2 O, or even last year's Capitals. McNab is now weighing the possibilities of improving the mixture by offering the necessary sacrifice, a No. 1 draft choice. His waiting game is advantageous in one respect; every day the selection's value increases, because it seems more likely to be No. 1 in the entire draft.

Expatriate hartland Monahan and defector Ron low volunteered some theories for the Capitals' decline. Both labeled the Capitals' management "cheap." Low added that some players worked so hard last year, they were now able to ease off without McVie noticing. Monahan thought the Capitals were still working hard, to the extent that they were "too tired to play."

McVie still reads the sports pages and he responded to that observation at a team meeting by asking any player who felt "tired" to raise his hand. Either nobody is tired or the weariness extended to the arms or there was a suspicion that McVie was ready to prescribe rest and recreation on a farm in Hershey. Anyway, he got no response, which is just about what happened the last few times he pleaded or some effort on the ice.

The Capitals' passes are frequently off target and, should they be well aimed, there is a problem accepting them. Players preparing to shoot seem to be treating the puck like a winter-rules golf ball, with the opposition unwilling to stand and watch. If a rebound is left by the opposing goalie, there is no Capital around to convert it.

The winless streak has reached nine games, the team has scored five goals in its last six games and even management's distribution of clock radios at intermissions hasn't been enough to keep the dwindling supply of fans awake. One guy was snoring away in section 211 during the third period Sunday night. Apparently, his alarm went off, because he suddenly jumped up and left.

Those fans who remain faithful are less than delighted with McVie's theory of defensive hockey. They figure a scoreless tie as the ultimate achievement, and the two-team total of four shots in the first 15 minutes when Toronto visited Friday approached the optimum.

"The whole theme is goals against," McVie conceded. "I've done a lot of research in defensive hockey. My game plan will never change. I want two men in, forechecking, because the more you play in the other team's zone, the less chance you have to give up a goal.

"Never invite a stranger into your end of the rink. I don't want to play defense in our zone, but I do want to play defense.If we get the puck in their zone, the goals will eventually come."

They haven't yet, with the Capitals repeatedly dumping the puck into the corners and eventually yielding possession without a shot. But if goals against the ultimate denominator, then the Capitals are improving. After 14 games, they have yielded 56 goals. A year ago, the total was 57, and it was 68 in 1975, 72 in 1974.

The goals for total? You'd have to ask. Well, it's the lowest for the first 14 games in the team's history, only 26. A year ago, the figure was 36, and in 1975 it was 45. Even in these awful days of 1974, the Capitals managed to score 28 times.

Guy (rhymes with knee) Charron has been tabbed for primary responsibility in the production decline. After 14 games last year, he had 10 goals. Today he boast four. But another statistic is interesting. He has fired 55 shots on goal this season, 10 more than 1976. They just aren't going in and nobody knows why.

That left knee won't go away, either, and Charron can be seen grimacing every night. Friday he limped after being checked hard by Toronto's Jerry Butler. Sunday he twisted the knee while making a routine pass to Bob Sirois.

Walt McKechnie's plus-minus rating of - 13 is close to Bill Mikkelson's pace in his memorable - 32 campaign of 1974-75. Craig Patrick hasn't produced a point in 14 games. Bill Riley hasn't put a shot on goal in the last four games. Bill Collins has been burned for five enemy-strength goals in two games. Rick Green plays perfect hockey one night looks like the beginner the next. Except for Sirois, who has a slight knee problem himself, it is easy to read through the entire roster and note deficiencies. The reasons for same are more elusive.

The absence of Yvon Labre, who is recuperating from knee surgery, is a possibility in the team's labor drain. labre is not gifted with superior ability, but he is a tireless worker, and there is no doubt he inspired last year's Capitals by example.

Brian O'Neill, the league's executive vice-president, is another who has been fingered as a culprit in the Capitals' decline. He devised a schedule that put Washington on the road for six of its first 10 games and sent Montreal and Philadelphia here as two of the four visitors. That imbalance might eventually even out, if you are seeking a ray of hope.

After weighing all these possiblities, I paid a visit to my psychiatrist, the man who helped those 8-67-5 and 11-57-10 seasons to pass without permanent scars to my psche. And, lo and behold Bernie Wolfe, he had the answer this time, too.

It seems the core of the Capitals' problem is that they are habitual losers, and the playoff talk management expounded at season's start has left them insecure.

Except for goalie Gary Smith and left wing Dave Forbes, the players have been able to plan their futures based on immediate availability for other tasks when the regular season ends.

McKechnie, for example, has played 555 NHL games since he last saw Stanley Cup action with Minnesota in 1968. Charron has played 508 games without ever being in a playoff. Except for two games with St. Louis in 1968, Collins' streak would be at 488 and Patrick's at 368. Ace Bailey has gone through 362 routine games since he drank from the Stanley Cup in Boston in 1972. It's been 318 without overtime possibility for Gerry Meehan since his Buffalo days in 1973. Bryan Watson has played 372 since a 1972 playoff stint in Pittsburgh. For Jack Lynch (337), Ron Ialonde (326) and Labre (259), there are no playoff memories.

McVie keeps shuffling his lines, talking about the need to prevent keying on certain individuals when the playoffs roll around. Management pays close attention to Pittsburgh and Detroit scores, because of their "importance" to the playoff situation. My psychiatrist says that kind of talk is making the players nervous.

He also says not to worry about it, that it's a condition that will sort itself out. If the Capitals don't have any playoff hopes and then everybody will return to his normal playing pattern.