Asked to define the Washington Capitals' goals for the upcoming season, Coach Tom McVie said, "Tom make the playoffs."
What does the team need to make that happen?
"Two 40-goal wingers," McVie replied.
Are any of the team's wingers capable of scoring 40?
That is the Capital's problem as they prepare for season No. 5. The scoring production on the wings is mediocre at best. A year ago, Bob Sirois collected 24 goals and no other Washington winger topped 13. The total of every man who skated a wing for the Capitals did not reach 100.
During the offseason, Washington signed center Rolf Edberg and defenseman Leif Svensson, two members of the Swidish national team. Their No. 1 draft choice was center Ryan Walter, whose development has been stymied by a knee operation. On the feeble flanks, improvement has not been discernible.
Tim Coulis, another first-round draftee, suffered a broken left wrist in the first rookie game, tried to play for another week and now is scheduled for surgery tomorrow. Like Walter, he won't suit up until November.
Paul Mulvey, the 6-foot-4 left wing drafted in the second round, has future star potential, but he does not seem capable of moving into the NHL right now. So, as the Capitals drill for Wednesday's opener in Los Angeles, their prospects are not dissimilar from their fourth-year finish.
Fifth place in the Norris Division would carry added stigma this time around, however. With the amalgamation of Cleveland and Minnesota, the Norris cellar-dweller will become the only fifth-place team in major-league hockey.
There is hope of a dramatic step forward tomorrow, when the National Hockey League hods its waiver draft. As a condition of the Cleveland-Minesota merger, the Capitals received the No. 1 selection in that draft.
Each team is permitted to protect 18 skaters, two goalies, two players entering their second professional season and all first-year pros.
Montreal figured to be a prime target for Capital encroachment, but defenseman Bill Nyrop is on the suspended list and winger Murray Wilson has been dealt to Los Angeles.
"That leaves them pretty well protected," said Washington General Manager Max McNab. "But Minnesota and Los Angeles may have problems."
Los Angeles left one 42-goal winger unprotected. He is Charlie Simmer, whose production came with Springfield of the American Hockey League. Other possibilities on the Kings' unprotected list were Springfield players Steve Clippingdale, 33 goals, and Russ Walker, 30.
Minnesota's best of the excess was veteran Gerry O'Flaherty, who scored nine goals in 10 games at Tulsa after a six-goal season in Vancouver.
Other high-scoring wingers available on a generally undistinguished list included Pittsburgh's Jacques Cosette, 39 goals at Binghamton of the AHL: Philadelphia's Al Hill, 32 goals with Maine of the AHL, and Detroit's Dan Gruen, 15 goals in 30 games with Kansas City of the Central Hockey League.
The man McNab really wanted was Wilson, but Montreal rejected his offer of a second-round draft choice and a player. McNab had also bid high for Pittsburgh's Jean Pronovost, who wound up in Atlanta.
McNab's dilemma in any trade talks is determining how much value to place on the two first-round draft choices the Capitals possess next spring, their own and Pittsburgh's.
"Off last year, our two first-round picks rate as No. 2 and No. 6," McNab said. "You gauge premium players nine or below."
Base on offseason development there is reason to believe two picks could be among the first four next year, a big plum, indeed. The question, of course, is whether McNab can retain them through another sorry season. He survived the last campaign without dealing off draft choices, but there was considerable discontent from fans and even players over the failure to make a trade.
The Capitals are still experimenting, as late as tonight's exhibition at Pittsbugh, in attempts to find the magic that would turn members of the current roster into adequate line.
Guy Charron, a star throughout the exhibition campaign, had centered Sirois and Tom Rowe for much of the preseason.But that was the only line that produced consistently, so Sirois was shifted onto a unit with Edberk and Mulvey, hoping the scoring punch would become contagious.
The Capitals have a fairly solid, improving defense, despite Jack Lynch slow recovery from a knee operation and Gord Lane's temporary absence with a slight shoulder separation. Their goaltending, with Jim Bedard and Bernie Wolfe, is adequate or better.
Without another wing, however, they haven't a prayer.