If Rick Smith and Howard Walker were paid by the word, they would not even require a piggy bank to store surplus pennies. Fortunately for the two defensive partners, the Washington Capitals are paying them six-figure salaries based on more pertinent statistics.
Smith and Walker have quietly built a remarkable record. Smith, who missed a month with a broken right index finger, has played 14 games for Washington, during which the team has posted eight victories, three defeats and three ties. Without the 32-year-old hockey traveler, the Capitals are 8-16-8.
Since Smith was acquired from Detroit, he has amassed a plus-10 rating, second on the team to Bengt Gustafsson's plus 15. Incredibly, in the 18 games he has played, invariably taking a regular shift, he has been on the ice for only four equal-strength goals by the opposition.
Walker, 22, a rookie who seemed destined for a long stay in Hershey because of the numbers situation here, was thrown into the NHL wars Nov. 1, after Paul MacKinnon went down for the season. Playing steadily, Walker has compiled a plus-nine rating.
Walker ran into some difficulties after Smith's injury, when he was forced to partner other rookies, and was sent to Hershey in mid-December to regain his confidence. Two days later, injuries mandated his return and there has been no further question of assigning him to the farm, although Walker professes to be uncertain of the permanence of his role with the Capitals.
"I don't have that much experience and he's got all of it," Walker said. "If I do make a mistake, he's got it covered. I watch him a lot and he's taught me a lot already. Off the ice, he tells me what I should have done, where I should have been.
"We work pretty well together and it's got to help my game. I played with him before all the injuries came in and we were doing all right then. Now we seem to be back where we were before."
Smith refuses to take any credit for Walker's rapid maturation as an NHL defenseman. Instead, he praises Walker as a principal reason for his own success.
"Howie has been a great help to me," Smith said. "He has tremendous poise for anyone, let alone a rookie. You know what they say, an old guy like me has to depend on a young kid's legs. I like playing with Howie. He's a good, steady hockey player."
It was Smith who felt like a rookie when he returned to action in Minnesota Jan. 10, after five weeks of wondering why a shot had to hit him in the right hand at just the spot where his glove was not fully padded.
"Five weeks; I've never been out that long during the season before," Smith said. "I was as nervous as a rookie just a week before I came back, getting my conditioning so I'd be ready when the time came. It's a lot more fun playing than watching."
This season has not been much fun for Smith, although it is getting better. He went to training camp with Boston, where he had played the last four seasons, but was left unprotected in the waiver draft and grabbed by Detroit. The Wings picked just ahead of Washington, which was also prepared to take Smith.
This occurred 2 1/2 weeks after Smith's wife, Carol, had presented him with their first child, a boy named Dustin. In Detroit, Smith was a regular through five games, all of which the Wings lost, and then he became a benchwarmer. Suddenly, he was on waivers and consigned to Washington.
"It didn't come as a shock," Smith said, "because I wasn't playing well and we're in hockey to produce. I don't know the reason I wasn't playing well; I could maybe give 10 reasons. I was worried about my wife and son and it had a weighing effect on my mind, but I don't want to use that as an excuse. I'm just glad whatever was bothering me hasn't followed me here."
Walker, a late bloomer who was not drafted in his 20th year, played for two years at the University of North Dakota. After he attained the status of NCAA champion a year ago, Walker decided to pursue bigger goals and hired an agent, Norm Caplan, who notified all NHL teams of his availability. The Capitals, who had closely scouted the U.S. colleges, were ready to bid.
"Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Hartford were after Walker and if we had waited we would have lost him," said General Manager Max McNab. "But we were in a position to react. Jack Button and David McNab didn't hesitate. They told me to go ahead and take him. If I didn't have good people, I couldn't make that decision."
If the Capitals did not have Walker and Smith, they couldn't make the playoffs.
Walker's right hand, bruised by the butt end of a stick Sunday, was X-rayed yesterday. The results were negative, so he will be ready to face the Minnesota North Stars in tonight's 7:30 contest at Capital Centre . . . Dave Parro, who has won three straight, will start in goal, backed up by Mike Palmateer . . . General Manager Max McNab returns tonight from the general managers' meeting in Phoenix and there undoubtedly will be some decisions Thursday on the goaltending situation, with both Palmateer and Wayne Stephenson ready for duty this weekend. Since Parro and Rollie Boutin were called to Washington, Hershey has gone unbeaten in seven games. Bart Hunter is 5-0-1 and had a 43-save shutout against Nova Scotia in Halifax in his last start. Gary Inness won in his only appearance. A 43-year-old engineering contractor has replaced Hunter as Gord Laxton's backup in Port Huron, the only team complaining about the glut of successful goaltenders.