Tom McVie used to say that coaching the Washington Capitals was like opening Christmas packages - you never knew what to expect.

Christmas comes for Danny Belisle tonight when he makes his debut as the Capital coach in the season opener against the Los Angeles Kings. Belisle, who replaced McVie on Monday, does not know what to expect, either.

"I'm going to do more observing than directing at this point," Belisle said yesterday after he arrived here. "I have to appeal to the players for a total effort. I'll tread softly and slowly. It will take a few games to see whether to leave things alone or whether a change will be helpful."

We have no way of determing what the players' reaction will be," said General Manager Max McNab. "Some of the older guys have gone through it, but the kids haven't. From this point on it's looking forward and seeing how quickly the team can put Danny's thinking in motion."

McNab and owner Abe Pollin spoke to the players in the Capitals' locker room at Ford Dupont before practice yesterday morning. Then McNab drove to Baltimore, met Belisle and flew here, arriving in midafternoon.

Belisle was introduced to the team at a meeting at 10:30 p.m., 45 minutes after the players arrived, shepherded here by team captain Yvon Labre.

"The only time I got to see him (Belisle) before was last year when I played at Hershey and he was coaching the (Philadelphia) Firebirds," Labre said. "They didn't have great players, but they were a well-disciplined club and had a similar system to what we were doing here.

"It's a big change for him. He's got to get to know the players."

Belisle has had experience with a juggling act just before season's start. In 1977, the Firebirds were granted an American Hockey League franchise on Sept. 29, two weeks before the season opener.

Belisle picked up some free agents from the defunct North American Hockey League and discards from NHL and World Hockey Association teams and put together a club that was a contender for first place much of the season.

"I've had a little experience at jumping in late," Belisle said. "It's like at the seashore - some people like to go in slowly and get their feet wet. I have to dive right in. It's the same result. You wind up getting wet."

McNab and Belisle discussed the players during their plane ride here and, Belisle said. "We had a chance to go over a lot in 4 1/2 hours. I asked a lot of questions about each player. I was interested particularly inwhat kind of character each has."

While Belisle is making his NHL coaching debut, five of his players will be making their first appearances in the league.

Defenseman Leif Svensson, centers Rolf Edberg and Greg Carroll and left wings Paul Mulvey and Rod Schutt are the newcomers. In addition, defenseman Pete Scamurra and right wings Mark Lofthouse and Eddy Godin spent most of last season in the AHL.

McNab set the lineup for tonight's game and Belisle said, "Max will have the lineup and line and I'll go from there. I'm generally familar with the players, although I haven't seen the team play. That might be considered a little adversity, but I'm confident in a few games I'll be settled."

Guy Charron will center Tom Rowe and either Bob Girard or Schutt. Edberg will work with Mulvey and Bob Sirois, and Carroll will center Lofthouse and Schutt or Girard. The fourth line consists of Gerry Meehan, Mike Marson and Godin, although one forward must sit out.

The defensive pairings are Rick Green with Svensson, Labre with Bryan Watson and Scamurra with Robert Picard, Jim Bedard is the likely starter in goal.

Sent to Hershey of the AHL yesterday were defenseman Gord Lane, center Rick Bragnalo, right wing Bill Riley, left wing Gary Risslin and goalie Rollie Bouton. They joined previously assigned Doug Gibson, Doug Patey, Nelson Burton, Brent Tremblay and Archie Henderson.

Sent to Port Huron, Mich, of the IHL were Lou Franceschetti and J. Johnston.

Veterans Dave Forbes, Blair Stewart, Ron Lalonde and Glen Currie remained in Washington, awaiting further orders tomorrow.

Schutt was obtained Monday from Montreal in a swap for defenseman Pierre Bouchard. His formers Montreal teammate, Murray Wilson, is with Los Angeles and said of Schutt, "He's a good little winger and he's got a hell of a shot. He'll probably have the hardest shot on your team."

The Kings still have 28 players in camp, including former Capital Hartland Monahan, who is not expected to dress tonight.

Ron Grahame reported from the Boston Bruins yesterday and is expected to start in goal for the Kings.

A small crowd is likely, since the second game of the World Series will be played here tonight. The World Series has virtually shoved the Kings off the local sports pages.