The Washington Capitals face a rebuilding job as they prepare for the start of their fifth season. The task does not involve personnel, however, so much as rebuilding the shaken confidence of their fans.
A year ago, the Capitals were being touted for playoff status, following a 24-victory season in 1976-77. Instead, they struggled through an early 20-game winless streak, were decimated by injuries and slipped back into the Norris Division cellar with a 17-49-14 record.
"If we'd won last year what we won two years ago and won two years ago what we won last year, everybody would be happy," said Coach Tom McVie.
Not everybody is happy. The wait-and-see attitudes of the cynical has produced a static situation in the season-ticket department, despite the personal appeals of owner Abe Pollin and the guarantee of a 20 percent postseason rebate to the dissatisfied.
And with that incredible habit of ill-timing that has plagued the team like an albatross since day one, the Capitols begin training camp at Hershey, Pa., tomorrow with out their highly regarded No. 1 draft choice, center Ryan Walter.
Victim of a backyard knee injury while pursuing a lacrosse ball, Walter underwent surgery Wednesday for removal of torn cartilage from his left knee. It figures to be at least Nov. 1 before Walter wears a Washington uniform.
"Our franchise has been through some tough days," said General Manager Max McNab. "We'll make it, but this won't help things."
Another knee will be closely watched during training camp. Defenseman Jack Lynch, who tore up his right knee in Vancouver Dec. 13 and had an operation two days later, still is a doubtful quantity. He is not expected to be ready for the start of the regular season in Los Angeles Oct. 11.
The big pluses over last season are the arrival of the club's first overseas reinforcements, Swedish center Rolf Edberg and defenseman Leif Svensson, and the continued development of goalie Jim Bedard and defensemen Rick Green and Robert Picard.
If the Capitals are imporved, so are most of their opponents. And everyone is joining the fitness kick that provided the Capitals with an edge in the strength department. The club's playoff chances right now actually are less bright than they were entering last season.
The Capitals' principal deficiency is lack of a left wing who can score, although there is hope that one can be plucked in the waiver draft next month. Washington also owns that extra No. 1 amateur draft selection from the Hartland Monahan deal with which to make an emergency trade.
McVie was an island of caution among the drumbeaters a year ago, questioning whether his team could match its emotional level of the previous season. Even he, however, was not prepared for that awful start, which saw the Capitals win only two of their first 25 games. Now, once again, McVie is cautious about immediate results, while waxing eloquent about the inevitability of success.
"What we need is just a little time," McVie said. "I know that this franchise is going to be the best franchise in the National Hockey League. What Max McNab is doing has to pay off. Hanging onto to draft choices, do you think that doesn't get painful sometimes when you could get a couple of players to win 10 more games?
"All I know is what we're doing here is right. If I didn't think it was right, I wouldn'e want to be here. I know I make extra work for myself, and extra expense for Mr. Pollin, but this program is right. Before, agents and players tried to stay clear of Washington Now this is the place they want to come to.
"Last year, when we lost 20 in a row we'd go in the back room to do the weight program and the players looked at me like I was crazy. But we ended physically strong, stronger than most clubs in the league. And the young players are buying this 100 per cent."
The fans will not be sold until the early-season results are posted. Despite the horse show's presence in Captial Centre for eight days in late October, contributing to seven road games among the first 11, the Capitals at least have a reasonable opportunity to break quickly out of the gate.
Three of the first nine games are against Los Angeles, with two each against Atlanta, Chicago and Pittsburg. The Capitals are capable of beating these teams, in contrast to their assignment a year ago, when the first 10 games included two with Montreal and two with Philadelphia.
Buoyed by three season-ending victories and last-meeting ties against Stanley Cup finalists Montreal and Boston, the Capitals this time consider themselves capable of beating anyone.
Additionally, the team is pretty much set, despite a 55-man training camp roster. The team will be divided into two groups at Hershey, with the bottom 30 under Hershey Coach Chuck Hamilton largely competing for minor league jobs.
right, I wouldn't want to be here. I everyone in the organization," McNab said. "We want Tommy to work with the guys who will be starting the season for him. And we want those guys working together from the beginning, instead of playing with rookies."
The idea is to implement a fast getaway. The fans demand it.