THERE is no question that the Washington Capitals, mercifully at the close of another losing season, are a much improved hockey team. At times this season they have been competitive with all but the very best teams in the league, and sometimes they have even put on a good hockey show for the fans.

But as far as they have come, they have a longer way to go.

Depending upon how you look at the team, the Capitals may be seen as just two or three players away from playoff level in talent. But in truth they lack more than that. What is missing can be called cohesion, coherence, pattern, positional play, or just plain teamwork. The word in hockey is system.

And that comes from behind the bench, where Coach Danny Belisle is found.

Coaching in hockey is the most ineffectual and archaic of all major team sports. That is why an intelligent, innovative coach like Anatoli Tarasov or Fred Shero can work apparent wonders. But what passes for normal competence simply is the establishment of some discipline, discrete patterns within which the individual flashes that excite hockey fans can be productive. The alternative is chaos.

The Cap's play too often is chaotic. Throughout their history, they have had difficulty clearing the puck from their own end. Either they do not react quickly enough to the forechecking patterns of opponents or they seem uncoordinated in executing their own clearing plays.

Thus they often resort to aimless passes into center ice or, worse, to icing the puck.

On free pucks in the neutral zone, the Caps too often are scrambling while opponents are forming according to contingent plans. This is not a matter of instinct, that amazing athletic reflex that characterizes all big-league hockey players, but the confidence that teammates are reacting in complementary ways.

It is called system, and it should come from behind the bench, drilled in practice, and preached in the locker room.

In fairness it must be said that the Caps have improved markedly in two phases of the game, both leading to greater scoring: forechecking and bringing the puck into the offensive zone by passing or carrying rather than dumping it.

But since these virtues have been accomplished by individual skills unaccompanied by complementary positioning (as in complete system), the results have been back-checking break-downs as often as offensive pressure once the original attack is turned away.

In a March home game, Washington beat St. Louis, 7-5. A local reporter said they played 40 minutes of "splendid hockey" before weakening in the third period. In truth there was very little splendid hockey in the whole game, except for the offensive play of the Maruk-Edberg-Rowe line.

Tom Rowe's hat trick highlighted the first period. In the second period, against probably the worst defense in the league, the Caps managed only six shots on goal, not because they were checking closely to protect a lead (the Blues had 11 shots on, many more shots at goal) but because patterns consistently broke down at both ends.

Appropriately, the final goal of the period, which proved to be the game-winner as St. Louis rallied in the third, was on an unassisted play by the tireless Dennis Maruk.

We have had Tom McVie, the vigorous leader of men with his emphasis on conditioning. And now we have had Belisle, the old-style hockey hand from the old-boy network, with constantly shifting lineups, a lack of a coherent system, and a sense of confusion.

Somewhere there must be a coach with an overall concept of how the game should be played who can translate ideas into practical patterns for a reasonably talented squad to execute.

There are several Caps who play hungry, and some who have not gone all out have gone elsewhere. The team has a good measure of youth, speed, toughness and even scoring capacity.

Best of all, in Jim Bedard and Gary Inness, they have a brace of professional goaltenders who could carry a team into the playoffs with sufficient support.

Too often their defenses could be sued for nonsupport, and that includes nonchecking wingers at least as much as error-prone defensemen.

The problems at defense throughout the history of the franchise may be focused on the popular figure of Bryan Watson. Full of admirable spirit, Watson, now departed, simply became too slow to accomplish what he knew should be done on the ice.

Now the youth movement may gather momentum for the Caps' defense. Rick Green still has the best promise as a standout defenseman, with Robert Picard moving up alongside.

For the rest, Leif Svensson has been disappointing, Jack Lynch inconsistent, and Yvon Labre simply not up to playoff caliber in talent. There may yet be hope for Pete Scamurra, but when a team must rely on Gord Lane, whose marvelous attitude can never make up for lack of skill, it never will be an NHL contender.