As part of the Cleveland-Minnesota merger settlement, the cellar-dwelling North Stars were placed ninth for purposes of National Hockey League waiver transactions until November 1. That means the Washington Capitals will receive the first selection in the waiver draft that precedes the start of the regular season.
Just as they did in 1977, the Capitals are likely to select a left wing. Whereas their previous choice, Dave Forbes, was primarily a checker, the Capitals this time wil be aiming for a goal scorer, and a prime possibility is Murray Wilson, the swift Montreal skater who was injured much of the last season.
In the last week, by signing two Swedes and by drafting Ryan Walter, the Capitals strengthened themselves at center and on defense. On the flanks, however, they remain point-poor. Bob Sirois, Bill Riley and Tom Rowe provide some hope on the right side, but to gaze left is to cringe.
Returnees Bob Girard, Mike Marson and Forbes combined for 24 goals last season. If they were one man, that would not be much more than a passing grade. None of the Capitals' farmhands seem ready for major league status and the seven left wings drafted Thursday need considerable seasoning.
"We're still looking for an experienced left wing," said General Manager Max McNab. "We'd like to keep Pittsburgh's No. 1 draft next year, but we'll trade it if we have to. We've always said we wouldn't strip ourselves in any around of the draft, but we may trade our extras.
"We like the idea of developing our own, if possible. Still, we are talking to a couple of free agents and we do hold that first choice in the waiver draft."
Guy Charron, the 38-goal center, always seems to play left wing in the World Hockey Championships, but he prefers the center position. Walter is another possibility to be shifted if no help has appeared by training camp.
"You never know, really," McNab said. "It's up to what you see at training camp. Ryan is a natural centerman but Peter (McNab's son) was a right wing at the University of Denver for three years and on the first day of training camp at Buffalo they said, 'You're a center.' That's when he made the move and it's certainly worked out well. At this stage, though, we're not going to hurt Ryan's chances by confusing him."
The rest of the club is solid. Charron, Swede Rolf Edberg and Walter will force Gerry Meehan to an extra effort just to keep a job at center.
Robert Picard, Rick Green, Captain Yvon Labre, Swede Leif Svensson, Byron Watson, Jack Lynch, Gord Lane and Gord Smith figure to scramble for the six defense positions. Jim Benard promises sound goaltending, with Bernie Wolfe defending his No. 2 spot against young Rollie Boutin.
If the wings answer McNab's prayers, and the Swedes adapt to the NHL, this will be a good hockey team. Not just respectable, but good, capable of reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs. If the wings do not wax but wane, the Capitals, like Icarus, will crash, to the only fifth-place finish in the NHL.
Buoyed by the Bullet's success, Abe Pollin and his legions fo ticket sellers are taking the optimistic route, promising Capitals fans an exciting, competitive team or 20 percent back.
Said Marketing Director Andy Dolich, "We're basically into season tickets, with 25 to 30 people out in the streets to make the season-ticket campaign a success."
The goal is to sell 10,000 season tickets,after leaving about 4,500 full-season fans unhappy with last year's flop. Pollin commitment to improve the club, plus the rebate offer, seemingly has lured the malcontents back for another try.
"The reaction to the rebate is very positive from our present season-ticket holders," Dolish said. "But it's only the last three or four days we've taken definitive action to back it up. It will take at least another month to see the reaction from the general populus."
If the Capitals get off to a reasonable start, there may be no need for repeat of such things as King Kong Night, with fans receiving crates of bananas, or the dash for groceries on the ice.
"We still intend to pursue our community involvement, with youth hockey and street hockey," Dolich said. We will repeat the 'year of the uniform,' which was verysuccessful. But the minor promotions we will probably doaway with. We are re-evaluating some things and we may make changes."
With a couple of changes on the wings, theCapitals could finally be off and winging toward the fulfillment of their five-year plan - a playoff series at Capital Centre.