A year ago, Robert Picard collected 21 goals and 44 assists, led the Washington Capitals with 245 shots on goal and posted a solid plus-5 rating. Justifiably, he was selected as the Capitals' most valuable player.

After seven games this season, Picard has one goal and four assists, a meager 13 shots and a minus-6 rating that places him last among the team's defensemen. He has been a minus player in every game except the victory over the New York Rangers, and he is concerned about it.

Another statistic, however, may help to explain Picard's predicament. Of the 10 forwards who dressed in Los Angeles Wednesday, only Tom Rowe was on the ice when the Capitals opened in Los Angeles a year ago.

That is an incredible turnover, punctuated by the fact that five of the 10 are in their first NHL season. Defense is a six-man task and some of the young forwards still need to make considerable adjustments after junior careers in which scoring was paramount.

The effect on Picard has been to limit his production. He is hesitant about leaving his defensive position to make one of his devastating rushes, because he cannot be sure that one of the forwards will fill the gap.

Picard is reluctant to make excuses of this sort, however, apparent to other eyes. Instead, he evaluates as "mistakes" the occasions when he is caught out of position and receives no help.

"When I make a mistake, 95 percent of the time it seems to result in a goal," Picard said. "Other guys can make the same mistake and the other team will make a bad pass. I make a mistake and they make a good play and score.

"My problems come when I try to do too much, when I'm trying to do big things instead of little things. I've been caught a couple of times because I've tried to carry the puck instead of getting the other guys to help me.

"We have so many different players. I like to stand up and hit them in the middle, but we have guys who are not used to that. They play a more free-wheeling game. But in the NHL you have to force a mistake at the blue line. Once they're inside the blue line, they can score.

"We have to get our act together. We have to worry about the team instead of worrying about ourselves. At the end of the year they don't say this guy did it, "they say 'Washington did it'. The people deserve to get something and we have the talent to give it to them."

Picard understands the youngsters' problems from his own experience as a rookie two years ago. He often found himself benched after a mistake on the ice.

"After Christmas that first year I had to play anyway because of injuries (to other players) and I played a lot better, if I made a mistake, Tommy (McVie) sat me out figuring it would do me good to think about it.

"It doesn't do good, though. It's bad. You worry so much about making a mistake that you try too hard and you can't do anything right. I know some of these kids are afraid Danny (Belisle) will bench them if they do something wrong.

"I'm long past that stage, but I still don't like to get caught. The other night I found myself bailing out instead of challenging people. You can't do that."

Picard promises he will not be bailing out when the Capitals meet the Vancouver Canucks here Saturday (WTOP-1500) at 8 p.m.

"Tomorrow I'm going to challenge them down the middle of the ice," Picard said. "If they beat me there, then they've earned something.

"This road is really important. We need four points and we have just two games left. I just hope everything comes around. We can make the playoffs if we win 30 games and I think we can win more than that. But we have to get moving. With all those shots we're giving up, we're messing up somewhere, but we can't afford to panic, either."

Picard has endured some jibes from his teammates on this trip as among the last of the club's Frenchmen. With Pierre Bouchard, Bob Sirois and Guy Charron hurt and Bob Girard in Hershey only Picard and Yvon Labre remain of the club's usually substantial French representation.

Picard also has been roasted about his recent debut as a television interviewer and the relentless manner in which some players maintain the assault makes a neutral observer wonder whether it is all 100 percent fun.

"I don't know what the guys think," Picard said. "I don't think they have anything against me. I'm on TV and I'm not used to it and I guess I didn't look very professional, so the guys are kidding me.

"I don't play jokes on guys, but they play them on me, I show that it bothers me -- it really doesn't, but it makes them feel good.If that's what they need, fine. Kidding me isn't hitting me on the nose. I can take it."

Picard is engaged to a Virginia woman and will be married in May. There is no need to talk of marriage settling him down, because he has always been the type to put his work -- hockey -- ahead of everything else. The only thing lacking in the past has been maturity and he seems to be making considerable progress in that direction.

The future is bright for Robert Picard if the Capitals get their act together.