In their search for anyone who can score, the Capitals two weeks ago traded away a No. 1 draft choice to get Dennis Maruk, a little center who in three seasons proved he can score goals. He had 94.
He had none in his first four games as a Cap. This development moved doomsayers to wonder if the Caps' eternal importance is contagious. They had only 20 goals in the first eight games. Would Guy Lafleur, put in a Caps' uniform, turn into Peggy Fleming?
Not to worry, Maruk says. Soon enough, the goals will be flying off his stick. Not only that, the Caps will discover the powers of confidence. Then they will become a playoff team. Maruk stopped short of claiming the Stanley Cup, reason at last subding his considerable enthusiasm.
"Sure, it bothers a goal scorer if he doesn't score goals," Maruk said yesterday afternoon, six hours before the Caps would play Pittsburgh at Capital Center. "It makes you work too hard and you get too tight and don't handle the stick well. But once I get that first one. I'll be more relaxed. I don't let it worry me. I know my goals are going to come."
They always have. His last season as a junior, Maruk scored 65 goals and was named the most valuable player in the Ontario Hockey League, the most disciplined of the mimor leagues. In the National Hockey League, he scored 30, 23 and 36 goals in three seasons with the wandering California-Cleveland Minnesota franchise.
He scored four goals in one game. "And I could have had nine," Maruk said yesterday. "It was one of those nights when The Guy Up There says, 'Everything is going to go right for you tonight.'"
Maruk isn't on bended knee yet four games is not many with new teammates - but he has had enough of this foolishness with the Caps.
"I hope I get a goal tonight," he said. "I'm in the mood for one tonight."
"Over 80 games, Dennis will score goals," said Max McNab, the Caps' general manager.
That faith is why McNab and owner Abe Pollin broke an informal pledge against trading their No. 1 draft picks. They need help now, both on the ice and with the paying customers. That's why they fired the coach, Tommy McVie, and why they traded for Maruk. The status quo had lost its appeal. Unless something - anything - was done, the customers would not tolerate another year of waiting for a real NHL team.
The Maruk trade seems a good one. The Caps had two No. 1 draft picks next year, they traded the second of them. (The draft next year is chancy because the seven top juniors are signed to right-of-first-refusal contracts with Birmingham of the World Hockey Association.)
What the Caps hope is that Maruk is at least as good as any player they might have drafted with that second No. 1. That is by no means certain, however, and all NHL people work with the terrifying knowledge that California, an expansion team in 1971, traded its No. 1 choice to Montreal for Ernie Hicke.
That No. 1 became Guy Lafleur, who has scored 304 goals the last seven seasons to Hicke's 122. Hicke is not in the league this year. Lafleur is yet king.
That deal was made out of desperation. Everyone in hockey knew of Lafleur, who in his last junior season scored an astonishing 130 goals in 62 games. But California was in a hurry and chose the immediate help of a veteran over the great promise of a rookie. (Considering the teams' overall strengths, Hicke fared well in comparison to Lafleur for three seasons, getting 47 goals while the king had 78.)
McNab and Pollin were dead set against such panic. McVie, their partner in the future, agreed. That's why it seemed so heartless when the Caps, after firing McVie, made the Maruk trade. McNab says appearances are deceiving, that the Maruk deal was in the works for at least 2 1/2 months before McVie's dismissal.
"It was a coincidence," he said of the timing of the firing and trade.
If the Maruk deal was made at least in part to give the paying customers more for their money, the little center guarantees satisfaction. He is no stylist on the ice, no flashy skater. He is, to use the jargon, mucker.
Muckers are hard workers. "With me, it's bang, bang, go, go, go," Maruk said in explanation. "I'll go into the corners and muck around with the puck. I'm not noticed out there if I'm not working."
He also works hard because he is a little guy, 5-foot-3 and 175 pounds. Maruk's size prompted the Caps to pass him twice in the 1975 draft. "I've had to show everybody I can't be pushed around," Maruk said. "I hit them as much as they hit me. I've shown in three years that I can play."
Dennis is a complete player who is very imaginative offensively," McNab said. "He is short, but size is not the criterion - strength is, and he is a big little man. You don't score 36 goals in this league if you're not strong."