At the beginning, they were usually referred to as "hapless."

Skating in the wasteland of NHL expansion, the 1972 New York Islanders routinely lost, 10-2 or 9-1. Their masochistic followers hallucinated through those lean times with dreams of a Stanley Cup.

The Islanders didn't disappoint their fans. Last spring, New York's "other" hockey team won its third straight championship.

Right now, the Islanders are hockey's dynasty. Like the Montreal Canadiens of years past, they are odds-on favorites to win wherever they go.

And if the Islanders do stumble briefly, as they did in their first playoff round against Pittsburgh, losing back-to-back games, they glide back on track without much fuss.

"You just don't think about it (a loss), you go on and play," says Mike Bossy, the right wing who has made the 60-goal season a given instead of an unreachable. "You can't brood about it."

They didn't brood, although the Islanders did admit they were scared. The fifth and final game against Pittsburgh was their first must-win situation since the 1979 playoffs. But the Islanders don't pause to consider what ifs. They beat Pittsburgh in overtime, then beat the arch-rival New York Rangers, then the Nordiques and then the Vancouver Canucks.

Meanwhile, out beyond shouting distance of the playoffs are the Washington Capitals, just two years younger than the Islanders, but still awaiting their first invitation to the postseason dance. Capitals fans have lived through the hapless period too, and have experienced playoff hallucinations--or is it hysterics? But Washington's road to the Stanley Cup still is a dead-end street. Because of it, the franchise is in financial trouble and may be sold and/or moved.

So what are the Islanders doing so right that the Capitals--and most other teams in the lower half of the league--are doing so wrong? Cynics who answer "everything" are automatically disqualified.

Like the Capitals, the fledgling Islanders set a mark for ineptitude in their first year, going 12-60-6 in 1972-73 (Two years later, Washington topped, or more accurately, bottomed that by going 8-67-5, a milestone still intact).

Bill Torrey, the Islanders' general manager since their inception, said of that first year: "I knew--we all knew--we weren't going to be very good. But we never expected to be that bad.

"It certainly wasn't a fun season," he said. "But it was only one bad year."

And even during that bad year, Torrey's club showed some promise.

"At their very first training camp, the Islanders had (goalies) Billy Smith, Chico Resch and Richard Brodeur," said Max McNab, former general manager of the Capitals. "So you knew they would have something to work with."

Smith, the last remaining original Islander (Resch plays for Colorado, Brodeur for Vancouver) still is going strong, whether stopping pucks or taking a well-aimed swipe at anyone near his crease.

But the team's biggest assets have come in the form of draft picks. Since Day 1, Torrey talked long and loud about his ultimate game plan, which should be required reading for any team with designs on a championship. He believed in acquiring and cultivating young talent.

The concept is hardly novel. Sam Pollock, former general manager of the Canadiens, collected draft picks as if they were matchbooks. He exchanged used hockey players for every other team's tomorrows, and Montreal won the Cup 10 times between 1965-79.

But few teams can afford the patience required to hold those choices. Colorado, which entered the league (as Kansas City) in 1974, has shipped its tomorrows to every other team in the league, desperate to establish a ready-made contender instead of a homemade one.

Lou Nanne, Minnesota's general manager, delights in stockpiling future picks from any team willing to make a deal. Nanne took over the North Stars in 1978 and immediately began remaking the team around his top choice that year, a 6-foot-4 inch center named Bobby Smith.

"You can't have too many draft picks in hand," said Nanne. "I have to stop and think how many I've got right now. Maybe even a few for the year 2000."

Instead of swapping tomorrow's draft choices for today's temporary help, Torrey hung onto his picks, selecting his personnel with an eye toward the long run. They might lose games along the way, he acknowledged, but the results would be a home-grown club that would eventually be a winner.

Denis Potvin was the Islanders' 1973 selection, and the 28-year-old defenseman still is regarded as the franchise-maker. During his first year with the team, New York's goals-against were reduced by 100.

"When they got Potvin, he gave them an instant power play and 40 minutes (per game) of offense and defense," McNab said. "He also gave them leadership, a sense of personality." Such a player, McNab believes, provides even a faltering team with credibility. "What more could you want?"

In the following seasons, Torrey wanted Clark Gillies, the big, tough left wing, and Bryan Trottier, the do-it-all center who can dominate any shift or game he's playing. Bob Nystrom, an original Islander draftee, improved his skating and became a dependable right wing.

With that cast, the Islanders made their first trip to the playoffs after the 1974-75 season, playing the upstart role. They knocked off the Rangers first, then Pittsburgh, and came within one game of ousting the defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers.

Hockey was undergoing a face lift during this time, and that helped the Islanders. The bully-boy tactics of the Flyers, who had won two Stanley Cups by brandishing sticks and elbows, had given way to the Canadiens' pure skating game. And skating and scoring were the keys to the Islander game plan.

In 1977, the Islanders drafted Bossy, who has scored at least 50 goals in each of his NHL seasons.

Three years later, Torrey slipped another building block in place just before the playoffs began. He traded longtime Islanders Dave Lewis and Billy Harris to Los Angeles for feisty center Butch Goring. The deal stunned the team, but supplied the finishing touch for Stanley Cup model No. 1.

The consistent pattern of drafting and developing home-bred talent has given the Islanders a solid core of ability, complemented by the occasional addition, such as Goring, from the outside. But stability in coaching has also been a factor.

In a league where the average duration of any coaching job is about two years--one to make promises, the other to make excuses--Al Arbour has enjoyed nine seasons behind the bench.

No current NHL coach has had such a long tenure. The Colorado Rockies have averaged a coach a year. Washington has employed three coaches in the last three seasons, wiping out any shot at consistency in Capital Centre.

Any team capable of mimicking the Islanders' blueprint for success could, at least on paper.

Some are trying. Nanne's new North Stars, loaded with youth, made it to the finals last year against the Islanders; this year, they lost to Chicago in an early round.

Philadelphia grooms its youth a level below the parent club, with a sophisticated minor league operation in Portland, Me. But the Flyers lack their old dominance.

Even Montreal has lagged. Coaching changes, trades and two quick exits from the playoffs have left the Canadiens bearing no resemblance to their former selves.

Only the Islanders seem to have brewed the right concoction. Their absolute commitment to working from within has produced a rock- solid franchise which appears to have no legitimate challengers in sight.