After six years of splashing unhappily in a multimillion dollar vat, the Washington Capitals are planning to have a lot of fun in '81.
The acquisition of goaltender Mike Palmateer, already photographed in a Capitals' jersey while drinking champagne, fills the major missing link on the performance chart. It also promises plenty of off-ice excitement, because Palmateer is an uninhibited extrovert with a penchant for popcorn and headlines.
Washington area executives have been startled recently to find Capital ticket sellers dressed as goaltenders being ushered into offices. The next visitor could be Palmateer, who has vowed to do everything possible to sell tickets and to push the Capitals into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Eighth place and home-ice playoff advantage in the first round are the Capital goals. That seems outlandish for a club that finished 17th last season, but personnel changes, maturation of young players, a full season with Gary Green as coach and the unlikelihood of suffering so many injuries again provide considerable reason for optimism.
Palmateer, despite the disappointing, friction-filled season just completed in Toronto, is an outstanding, durable goaltender. He will have ample backup help from Wayne Stephenson, Rollie Boutin or Dave Parro.
The defense has three dependable players, Rick Green and Pierre Bouchard on the left side and Paul MacKinnon on the right. There is high hope that rookie Darren Veitch will move right in with MacKinnon.
That leaves Pat Ribble, Leif Svensson, Yvon Labre, Pete Scamurra, Greg Theberge and rookies Howard Walker and Jim McTaggart to fight for role of the fifth man and to provide necessary depth in the event of injuries, which seem almost inevitable in these days of bigger, faster players.
There is a solid group at center, with Ryan Walter, Dennis Maruk, Guy Charron and Rolf Edberg, Rookie Tim Tookey, Glen Currie, Wes Jarvis and Harvey Pocza will be trying to push someone aside.
Although the wings are less formidably manned, there are fewer holes than in the past. The right side, particularly, has the potential to fill a lot of nets, with 36-goal scorer Mike Gartner, a more comfortable Bengt Gustafsson, Bob Sirois and Mark Lofthouse.
Left wing, which ranked with the goaltending as a 1979-80 liability, lists many bodies, many hopes and many question marks.
Leading the list is rugged Paul Mulvey, the teams's most improved player a year ago and beneficiary of a new rule that will extend his stick by three inches. Alan Hangsleben, the converted defenseman, provides another physical presence.
Hershey's president, Frank Mathers, considered Errol Rausse the Bears' best NHL prospect and Lou Franceschetti also enjoyed a good year at Hershey. Greg Polis at 30 is working hard to rebound from his leg operation and Antero Lehtonen might make it this time, with a year of NHL indoctrination behind him.
The safety valve would be to move Walter to left wing, considering the surplus at center. This would shatter the Capitals' No. 1 line of last year, but it would also give Washington the most physical left side in the league. Such a move is very much in the thoughts of General Manager Max McNab, who said his chief concern is acquiring an experienced right wing.
Although Palmateer emphasized that "a goaltender is only as good as his team his dexterity figures to improve the entire club. No longer should defensemen be overly concerned with retreat, if they have confidence that the man behing them can make up for most mistakes.
"I saw Tony Esposito get that all-star award the other day and I thought, 'That lucky Chicago,'" McNab said. "We've sat down every year at this precise moment and always had to consider our goaltending. Now with the addition of Palmateer, I hope we can forget about goaltending for another 10 years.
Gartner, in town to receive a $2,000 ring as the club's most valuable player last season, said he was growing restless, wishing the new campaign could start sooner than October.
If the players are anxious to get back to work, the Capitals' loyal corps of fans is excited, too. A full house of about 500 turned out at the Capital Club for the draft proceedings on Wednesday and reacted enthusiastically to most of the Capital acquisitions.
When it was relayed to the fans that McNab would momentarily have an "unbelievable announcement," one joker yelled, "ticket prices went down." Considering the team's expenditures for talent, that would be unbelievable, but the recent $1-a-ticket hike apparently has not deterred sales.
Marketing director Tom Hipp reported that the club had sold 508 new season tickets and that renewals were exceeding previous levels by far.
Faith in Green's ability to mold the talent is a primary ingredient in the optimism of both fans and players.
Gartner, in accepting his MVP ring, thanked, among others, "our coach, Gary Green, who introduced a system to us which we didn't know before."