The Washington Capitals, still in business and evidently looking for new players, are expected to take center Ron Sutter with their first-round choice in the National Hockey League draft June 9.
Roger Crozier, the acting general manager, had a three-hour meeting Wednesday with owner Abe Pollin and, in response to questions about the Capitals' future, said yesterday he had received the go-ahead to improve the team.
"We're going to do everything we can to improve the hockey club," Crozier said. "We're well prepared for the draft and we're trying to find other ways to improve the team immediately. We need a couple of defensemen and two or three forwards and we're pursuing a few things that might get us some."
The Capitals, as the nonplayoff team with the most points, will pick fifth in the draft. It is a fairly common assumption that the first four players chosen will be winger Brian Bellows of Kitchener, defenseman Gord Kluzak of Billings and center Ken Yaremchuk and defenseman Gary Nylund of Portland.
Sutter and his twin Rich played for Lethbridge in Alberta, the regular season champion in the Western Hockey League's East Division but upset by Regina in a seven-game playoff series. Ron Sutter, 5 feet 11 and 166 pounds, had 38 goals, 54 assists and 207 penalty minutes. He is considered a physical player like Capitals captain Ryan Walter, and possessed of even greater skills than Walter.
For much of the spring, the Capitals were prepared to flip a coin to decide which of the Sutters to select. However, Ron emerged as the better player during the WHL playoffs. For complications, Crozier and his scouts were impressed by Scott Stevens, a defenseman for Kitchener's Memorial Cup champion, and defenseman Phil Housley, a Minnesota high school standout.
"It's not as cut and dried as some people believed in January," said Crozier, who attended the Memorial Cup games in Hull, Quebec, last week. "Bellows, Nylund, Kluzak and Yaremchuk were head and shoulders over the others last year and they had a head start. But some of the others improved dramatically.
"I'm really encouraged by what I've seen. The top 10 guys are pretty solid prospects. Now we have to make a decision, which is good."
Assuming the top four go as expected, the decision is almost certain to be Ron Sutter, on the basis of family history if nothing else. There are four Sutter brothers already in the NHL and all have proven solid, hard-working players.
"Their desire to win and play the game, the sacrifice they're willing to make, is pretty amazing; the whole family is like that," said the New York Islanders' Clark Gillies, who played on a line with Duane and Brent Sutter.
The Islanders, St. Louis and Chicago, which now have Sutters, are interested in adding another, and there is a possibility Crozier might arrange a flip-flop of draft picks in exchange for a defenseman who could help the Capitals. More likely, however, he will take Ron Sutter.
Another immediate goal for Crozier is signing Swedish defenseman Peter Andersson, a 1980 draftee who earned an all-star berth in the World Junior Tournament.
Additionally, there will be contract negotiations with defenseman Doug Hicks, whose pact expires July 1, and Walter, winger Bengt Gustafsson, goalie Al Jensen and defensemen Lee Norwood, Randy Holt and Greg Theberge, all entering the option years of contracts.
While Crozier gets busy, there remains the possibility that the team will be sold. Pollin has publicly said he is seeking a buyer, but apparently both his asking price and the terms of rental at Capital Centre have scared off interested parties.
Pollin attended Tuesday's NHL meeting in New York, but left before it was recessed. A decision on the future of the Colorado franchise could affect Pollin's plans, since there has been talk about a merger between the Capitals and Rockies.
Because a franchise transfer requires unanimous approval by the league's owners and the many facets affecting a Colorado solution have prevented agreement thus far, a possible scenario would be the folding of the Rockies, with the players either being put into a dispersal draft or coming to Washington in a merger.
That could be followed by expansion in 1983 to the Meadowlands and Tacoma, Wash. Expansion requires only a three-quarters vote.
Despite the accelerated activity on the personnel front, the Capitals have not mailed season-ticket applications and responsible officials have declined to comment on the delay.