For the Washington Capitals' 25 European travelers, this was an optional day of practice, used by many for a quick trip home or a session on the golf course.

For defensemen Greg Theberge, Jim McTaggart and Jay Johnston, the options were limited. All are hopeful of snagging a spot in Washington, so all were out on the ice, business as usual.

"I have to keep my coordination up," Theberge said. "Passing and skating are my game, and I can't afford to take days off. I felt good out there today, even if I am supposed to be tired."

Theberge, 22, made an excellent impression on the big ice in Europe and did little to diminish it during Sunday's exhibition here against Pittsburgh. There is no question that the Capitals' biggest need as the season approaches is the injection of more offensive thinking into the defensive unit. Theberge promises more in that regard than anyone else.

"The coaching staff has been working with the defensemen, making them more a part of the offense, and I hope I can play a big factor," Theberge said. "I sometimes get caught out of position and I have to play more sound a game positionally. But I can play in Washington."

General Manager Max McNab is entertaining similar thoughts.

"He does create things," McNab said. "I didn't think he had a chance when he started, but he had made the (American League) all-star team here and he deserved a look. He's enthusiastic, in great shape and things happen when he has the puck."

If Theberge's prospects received a lift in Europe, McTaggart's chances diminished. He has not shown the spark or aggressiveness he displayed in Washington last season.

"I'm struggling," McTaggart said. "I have to get my intensity back. There's a lot of competition for a defensive spot, and it's going to be a tough decision to make."

McTaggart's physical prowess kept him in Washington a year ago while more skillful defensemen were farmed out, and with the increased scheduling within the rugged Patrick Division, it would seem to be a mark in his favor.

"Everybody's going to have to be physical," McTaggart said. "A combination of things will get you on the squad this year. I've got to get moving. It's getting close to the start now."

"I can't read his change," McNab said. "I'm going to talk with him and I don't want to discuss it until I have. He can contribute in a certain way."

Johnston's situation is frustrating. He suffered a hip pointer in Europe and tried to skate today with his midsection heavily wrapped.

"It's pretty sore, and I banged it up again today," Johnston said. "I sit here and I can see my chances of making the team going out the window. But there's no sense going out there when you can't."

"He's one guy we haven't been able to assess," McNab said. "The injury isn't serious, but it's aggravating."

Watching the scrimmage from the stands was Darren Veitch, who withstood a suggestion by Jack Button, the club's director of player recruitment, that he might be better employed on the ice.

"You don't get many days off and the trip was really tiring," said Veitch, who suffered a groin pull in Sweden and missed the first game.

"He performed pretty well and there were no situations he couldn't handle," McNab said, indicating that Veitch was fairly prominent in plans for the upcoming season.

Rick Green, Paul MacKinnon and Howard Walker are sure to be awarded three of the six defensive spots on the roster. Pat Ribble, who did not make the European trip, worked hard here and is a likely starter, too. Timo Blomquist had his broken jaw wired and will be out about six weeks. Pierre Bouchard, his broken nose reset, will resume skating Tuesday.