The Washington Capitals spent most of the summer signing and then pursuing defenseman Robert Picard, who thought perhaps he would rather play in Quebec. For much of the early season, fans - and sometimes coach Tom McVie - wondered why the team hadn't saved its half-million-dollar commitment and left him there.

As recently as Nov. 23, Picard gave away two Atlanta goals in the first period of a Capital Centre Contest and watched the remainder from the bench. On Dec. 5, McVie tired of Picard's lollygagging at a practice session and ordered him from the ice. Picard broke his stick and stormed off in anger.

What a difference a month makes. As the Capitals prepare to meet the Los Angeles Kings at the Center tonight at 7:30, they wouldn't give up Picard for a million bucks.

In the 12 games since that practice pique, Picard has been on the ice for only three equal-strength goals against the Capitals. He has asserted himself physically, pounding on the Kings' Mike Murphy and the Boston Bruins' Bob Miller, and he has asserted himself in a leadership role as well.

Instead of collapsing when defensive stalwarts Jack Lynch and Rick Green were injured, the Capitals have actually moved forward, losing only one of their last seven games. Picard and partner Bryan Watson are among the major factors in that surge.

"He's getting respect and he's playing with authority," said general manager Max McNab. "He's on the move now as far as leadership is concerned."

"It's been quite an accomplishment for the young man," said doubting Thomas McVie. "In the last four games he's looked exactly why he was picked where he was picked (No. 3 overall in the amateur draft.(

"I was told by everybody what a good player he was going to be, but lots of times I had my doubts. The last four games, the way he's played, he looks like in time he will take over the defense and run it. His attitude has changed - not enough yet, but it's changed. He's coming to me for learning. I like his act."

Not coincidentally, McVie's revised appraisal has given a big boost to Picard's confidence.

"When I step on the ice, I know the man behind the bench has more confidence in me, and it gives me more confidence," Picard said. "Greenie's hurt and the guy needs a bigger effort from me. Now I play the power play and my shift. I get more ice time and I get more chances."

All season, during bad times and good, Picard has been concerned about his goals-against figures. At the time of the Atlanta benching, his plus-minus rating was minus nine. It has now reached zero, a figure bettered on the club only by forwards Bob Girard and Bob Sirois. In 33 games, Picard has been burned for only 24 equalstrength goals, remarkable for a fulltime performer on a team that has yielded 107.

"When I started the year, it seemed like I was minus 11 after the first week," Picard said. "I don't want to get in that position again. Last year I was talking to Claude Ruel (Montreal assistant coach) and he said to make it in pro I'd have to average a goal a game against. Less than one against was great. I think more about that than anything.

"I take care more about the defensive part than I used to. Now I'm carrying the puck more and I have confidence on defense. I'm standing up, not getting tired coming back all the time, and it gives me more energy for offense."

Watson, a struggling minus 15 not long ago, has more than halved the deficit, and he smiles at mention of Picard and says, "Just say that I like being with him."

There were times when Watson, too, must have wondered about his highly touted partner. In Quebec, in an exhibition just before the season began, Picard was challenged by the Nordiques' Peter Driscoll, who twice dumped the rookie. Watson jumped in and started swinging while Picard stood in seeming bewilderment.

That phase is over. After his onesided brawls with Murphy and Miller, Picard said, "Anybody who gives me a cheap shot will find my gloves on the ice. I'm ready to scrap anytime."

"He's really become very physical," Watson said. "It's helped his game. Both of us are physical and the wingers are helping us, too. We seem to be working well together. I hate to say it, though, because it seems as if every time we get things going, something backfires.

"We've really been working at it together. Playing defense is something you don't pick up overnight. You have to be patient and learn each other's moves. We talk about players and plays constantly. We've been working on skating in our won end and getting the puck out.

"Defense is difficult to play, particularly the first time through against players you've never played against. You have to learn the best way to play against different teams and different players."

Growing up is part of the job, too.

"He was a big junior star in the Montreal Forum," McVie said. "Kids were always around the Forum, getting things for him. He never learned to fend for himself, He's still a young lad; he always lived at home before. This is all new to him. Some of the older guys bug him and that upsets him. He needs some maturity, but he's going to be all right."

McVie showed his faith in Picard by leaving him on the ice Monday after Pittsburgh pulled its goaltender, one goal down in the final minute. Picard showed his willingness to learn by skating to the bench and asking instructions on what to do if Washington won the draw in its own end.

When Picard got the puck, he avoided a dangerous down-the-middle blast at the empty net, instead caroming the puck off the boards. It was a perfect play, into the Pittsburgh zone but not hard enough to create an icing situation.

Then, moments later, with an easy chance at the empty net, Picard rushed his shot and missed. He isn't perfect, by a short shot, but he promises to excite Capitol Centre fans for a long time to come.