For most of their unspectacular five-year existence, the Washington Capitals have been plagued by poor timing.

They entered the NHL in 1974, when World Hockey Association inroads made veteran talent sparce. They upset season ticket potential for years to come by demanding full payment at income-tax time. They could be counted on to play horribly whenever a large crowd was lured into Capital Center. They fired coaches at inexplicable moments. And if they never blew a lead in the final second of a game, the same could not be said for the last two, or five.

Now, at last, there is evidence that time is starting to pay its debts to the indomitable icemen.

The NHL, having satisfied its player's requests for increased benefits, will hold its scheduled expansion draft in Montreal June 13, when the Capitals will lose four players to the incoming WHA teams. If such a draft were held a year from now, Washington might be a serious loser; next week, the only loss will be in excess salaries.

With first-year players exempt, the Capitals are capable of protecting on their untouchable list of 15 skaters and two goalies every player who finished the past season with the Capitals. They probably won't, however, instead risking the loss of either Bob Girard or Blair Stewart so that they can give Pete Scamurra and Eddy Godin further scrutiny.

Also, goaltender Bernie Wolfe will be left free, although protectable, because he does not figure in the team's plans. Jim Bedard, exempt from the draft, and Gary Inness, whose two-year option was recently picked up, are the netminders in the Capitals' future.

NHL President John Ziegler is due to rule Sunday on the controversial Bengt-Ake Gustafsson case. The 21-year-old Swedish winger signed with Edmonton shortly before the merger and the Capitals contend the contract was illegal. Even if Ziegler approves it, there is doubt that the Oilers would protect him, in which case Washington would relaim both Gustafsson and Winnipeg's Paul MacKinnon.

Both are considered first-year men and they would be draft-exempt, along with Ryan Walter, Rolf Edberg, Leif Svensson, Tim Coulis, Paul Mulvey, Nelson Burton, Gary Rissling, Archie Henderson, Lou Franceschetti, Wes Jarvis, Glen Currie and Jay Johnston.

Adding 15 veterans as protected players would leave Girard, Stewart, Wolfe, Mike Marson, Gord Smith, Bill Riley, Ron Lalonde, Rick Bragnalo and Doug Gibson available for claim. Since a spot may be filled after each claim, either Stewart or Girard would be safe following the first selection.

The trading deadline is today, with protected lists to be filed Sunday. General Manager Max McNab does not expect the Capitals to make any last-minute deals, although he said the four WHA teams were making numerous overtures to NHL clubs holding rights to their players.

"As usual, Montreal is in the driver's seat," McNab said. "They will probably wind up with at least two first-round amateur drafts for not reclaiming guys from the WHA side. And in the expansion draft, it'll be no surprise if Montreal leaves somebody prominent open and then fills with him when he isn't picked. There are always a lot of hidden deals in these things."

During the NHL meeting in Montreal from Sunday through Thursday, Peter O'Malley will attempt to finalize contracts with Pierre Bouchard, Rick Green and Bob Sirois, all of whom are due to enter their option years.Greg Polis recently signed a new pact. Chuck Arnason, who finished the season with the Capitals, has been returned to Minnesota.

Getting acclimated at Capital Center this week was Gary Green, newly signed coach of the Capitals' Hershey farm club.

"With the new teams, clubs will only be drafting every 21st time, so the ones whose minor-league operations have the best instruction will be ahead of the game," McNab said. "We think Gary Green puts us way ahead. Six, seven, eight clubs wanted him for a similar position."