With so many of their decisions, nearly all of them in fact, the Capitals give skeptics an open net to fire every kind of shot, legitimate and cheap. Yesterday was no exception. When Abe Pollin and his new partners seemed to have the money and will to hire somebody who could inspire the area, who did they introduce as general manager but another whiz kid whose next major hockey decision will be his first.

David Poile is a candid, confident, humorous, eager fellow who may well be the Scotty Bowman of the '80s, the next great executive in major-league sports. At 33, he simply does not look like a life preserver, somebody desperate men would turn to well past the 11th hour of a franchise to keep it afloat.

Like nearly everything else with the Capitals in the distant and recent past, this is another blind-faith move. Pollin and his new money pals got all they demanded of the area -- guaranteed sellouts, tax breaks -- with nothing more than lip service that the team would be better. Poile is another promise.

Surely, with the fresh millions from three new investors plus certain sellouts for 12 early games the Capitals could have turned the head of a Bowman or any other certified genius in hockey. What they did was hire a front-office Gary Green, a man who brings gray hair to the job but who also will be the youngest general manager in the National Hockey League.

The Capitals are obsessed with doing it their way, and we're just generous enough to give them time to get it right.

This much is certain: Poile is no foil.

He knows what we know, that either the Capitals skate into the playoffs -- and our hearts -- this year or cease to exist here.

"I have more than a one-year contract," he said after a press conference at Capital Centre. "But that's academic if the team folds."

Poile was introduced by the team's new executive vice president, Richard Patrick, and said he is to report daily to either him or Pollin. Mostly Patrick. Pollin's absence yesterday may be a signal that he intends to exert less control over his team, for the present.

Hooray!

Wanting control of the team, Poile insists he has it.

If a trade seems exactly right at 3 a.m. -- won't hold -- he can make it, as his boss with the Calgary Flames, Cliff Fletcher, once did.

"But I'd like to do it at midnight," he said, "so I can get some sleep."

Sleep is a luxury he may not soon experience.

What he has experienced is a Capitals-like situation, with the Flames, who flickered in Atlanta and eventually died there.

That was too far south for hockey, he said.

"But the population here is at least twice as big," he said, "and much wealthier. And with Philadelphia, New York and the Meadowlands relatively close, there is some sort of hockey fever."

Poile and the Flames began in the NHL at almost the same time.

"I started in a trailer in a parking lot," he said, "with a big sign overhead that said: 'The Ice Age Cometh.' I was in charge of sifting through all of the prospective nicknames in a contest we had. Some of them you wouldn't believe."

For instance?

"Aardvarks and Ice Holes."

He is a narrow-faced man, with spectacular eye contact and a vision of how the Capitals should be: flexible, like the Islanders. And with Bryan Murray, who had the Capitals two games under .500 in nearly a full season behind the boards, back as coach. Two games under .500 makes the playoffs.

Poile had a rinkful of confidence. Here is a man in his first moments in his first major job, with a woeful team only recently saved from oblivion, talking about "trading from strength."

How?

"Everybody loves his team right now," he said. "But let's say the Islanders and Rangers get off like gang busters when the season starts. Let's also say Philadelphia gets hit with dissension. And (Michel) Dion gets hurt and Pittsburgh needs a goaltender. We could make a fairly substantive deal in October or November."

If.

"If we get off to a fairly good start."

A fairly sensational start might be needed. Sellouts beget sellouts; early losses might mean that the state of the Capitals in the future will be measured in the state of Washington.

"Got to get the people to three games," he believes. "And sitting near fairly knowledgeable fans. If the team doesn't stink the joint out, we'll gain quite a few fans. The first 10 (guaranteed sellout) games are critical. They could turn off a lot of people.

"But you don't want to get the players too uptight, for where you are April 3 is what's really important."

Poile dismissed the Capitals' past in a half-minute, except to acknowledge: "Obviously the players didn't believe they were a playoff team."

He does.

For quite some time, Poile has considered himself qualified to be an NHL general manager. He was passed over twice. One can imagine his thoughts lately. Having been approached for the job about three weeks ago, he could all but taste the chance of his dreams -- and see it vanish at the same time.

Here he might be a general manager, at last, except that the team he seemed slated to run could quickly cease to exist before he got the job. He seems as loyal as Roger Crozier, the "acting" general manager who was treated so shabbily.

"Called the (Flames) owner to thank him," Poile said, "and told him I was in the shower, scrubbing the logo off my butt."

He knows that's on the line here.