The heat generated by the Capitals this summer never reached the beaches of Boston, where Bobby Carpenter took the sun between accounting classes at Salem State College.

"It was hard for us to keep track," said Carpenter of stories the Capitals would be sold or folded, would be moved or saved, would be blah-blah-blah. "Our newspapers didn't have much on it. I was just hoping there would be a team. I like it in Washington. It would have been a pain to leave, having to pack up and that stuff."

According to the Washington papers, the Capitals are still in business.

But Carpenter sees a new team in Washington.

"We should be a half-decent team this year," he said.

The old Capitals, as you know, were more often indecent than half-decent.

"We have a lot more toughness on defense now," Carpenter said. Trades brought in several strongman defenders, including two all-stars from Montreal. "It's obvious if you look in the locker room. Look at that size."

Rod Langway, Montreal emigre, weighed 217 1/2 yesterday.

"And there are reputations here. If those players play the same way here they've played other places, we'll be tougher for sure. I don't think too many teams will push us around anymore, the way Philadelphia always tried to. So we'll get to playing hockey."

Which is what Bobby Carpenter does best. And now the Capitals' precocious kid is a center again.

"We hope it's permanent," Coach Bryan Murray said of Carpenter's return to the position he played exclusively until two months into last season, his first in the NHL. Carpenter said, "I like it very much because I'm very comfortable at center."

Carpenter's move makes sense to anyone studying the Capitals' five lines listed for today's workout. The lines: Ted Bulley-Dennis Maruk-Chris Valentine, Alan Haworth-Carpenter-Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson-Milan Novy-Ken Houston, Craig Laughlin-Doug Jarvis-Bob Gould, and Torrie Robertson-Glen Currie-Gaetan Duchesne.

Defensive pairs included Lee Norwood-Timo Blomquist, Langway-Darren Veitch, Dave Hutchinson-Randy Holt, Doug Hicks-Greg Theberge, and Scott Stevens-Brian Engblom.

Folks who pay close attention will notice that Canadien imports Laughlin and Jarvis work on offense together while the other two erstwhile Canadiens, Langway and Engblom, work alongside young Capitals of potential. Those Capital loyalists who dote on minutiae will notice that centers on the preseason lines share many things, including quickness, guile and a certain lack of height and/or girth.

The new general manager, David Poile, said, "I like big, strong centers." So does the coach, Murray, who knows the Capitals too often lost those fleeting skirmishes in which strength is decisive. Murray said, "We have Maruk, Gustafsson, Novy or whoever. But we have no physical center."

A drumroll, please.

Introducing a big, strong, physical center.

He's 19.

He's growing a beard.

After a workout at the Hersheypark Arena, Bobby Carpenter sat in a whirlpool where warm waters of restorative power soothed the aches that come with the territory. The beard isn't much more than a 5 o'clock shadow (a quarter after 6, maybe), but it creates a certain dark edge that wasn't there a year ago when the Capitals signed him, a rosy-cheeked prodigy, straight out of a suburban Boston high school.

Under his left eye is his latest patch of hockey needlework, nine stitches taken this summer to close a gash created by someone's stick during a pickup game in Boston. The stick slashed under the eye and up across the bone at the eye's corner.

"Just a cut, that's all," Carpenter said.

Just in case, he now wears a plastic visor over his eyes. "I want to wear it. I always wore one in high school. Anything can happen. Besides, it doesn't get in my way or anything."

The Capitals put a heavy burden on Carpenter when they introduced him a summer ago. Memory recalls too many people saying Carpenter would be "great." Sports Illustrated started it with a cover story calling him "The Can't-Miss Kid." In high school, he was a single player carrying a team to unexpected victories, and if the Capitals sell a few tickets by calling a kid great, that may be good business but it's bad hockey.

Not even Bobby Orr, truly great, could carry a mediocre Boston team alone. As the Capitals stumbled to a 1-12 start, Carpenter struggled at center. The NHL's old pros were too much for him. By his offensive virtuosity, he dominated high school games. Defense was of little importance. Wherever the puck went, Carpenter followed.

Murray, who replaced Gary Green at 1-12, left Carpenter at center for another month before moving him to a wing.

"I moved him to help him out with his defense and discipline on the ice," Murray said. "Part of the game in the NHL is knowing your defensive responsibilities. In high school, a dominant player is allowed to chase the puck at will. In the NHL, if you do that, they will beat you at will."

Murray said Carpenter, 6 feet and 190 pounds, "plays a big man's game . . . He has shown maturity at this camp. With the experience he's had, he can step back and know what's what. Young players often think they have to do it all all over the ice . . . Bobby is changing that."

Carpenter scored 32 goals as a rookie and had 35 assists. Only three Capitals had more points. Not bad for a rosy-cheeked kid of 18. Now we get to see him with a tough-guy's beard at 19.