When the Washington Capitals came home from training camp in Hershey yesterday, they brought with them eight defensemen, all of whom had one thing in common. They were not in uniform when the Capitals opened the season a year ago.
Nominated to begin this season were Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, the stars obtained from Montreal; Darren Veitch, in Hershey last fall; Scott Stevens, the No. 1 draft pick; Timo Blomqvist, who was nursing a broken jaw in 1981; Randy Holt, who came from Calgary in November, and Dave Hutchison, obtained from Chicago in Roger Crozier's last act as general manager.
The eighth defenseman is Lee Norwood, acquired from Quebec in February. He still is inactive, because of a broken jaw suffered during an assault in downtown Washington this summer.
The defensemen for last year's opener in Buffalo were Rick Green, since dealt to Montreal; Terry Murray, now an assistant coach; Pat Ribble, waived to Calgary in November, and Jim McTaggart, Greg Theberge and Paul MacKinnon, all of whom are presently with Hershey.
Only four players--Bob Carpenter, Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson and Dennis Maruk--of the 18 who performed in the 1981 opener are still with the club, so great has been the housecleaning at Capital Centre. Dave Parro, the backup goalie that night, also is still around, but his current status is clouded by recurring muscle spasms in the left shoulder.
That new faces were needed for a new outlook is uncontested. Whether it will be possible to blend so many newcomers into a cohesive unit by opening night in New York Oct. 6 is doubtful. The key to early success, with a schedule that lists 10 tough games in October, obviously lies with Langway and Engblom.
Coach Bryan Murray is determined to keep them separated, except in vital situations like the last minute of a close game. It is his hope that they can lift their young partners, Veitch and Stevens, to a major-league level. The risk, of course, is that they instead will drag the two big guys down a few notches.
"By breaking them up, they are going to make Darren and Scott better hockey players," Murray said. "And it will make Langway and Engblom better hockey players, too, because it will make them much more important in their own minds.
"In Montreal, they always knew they were second and third in the pecking order because Larry Robinson was around. Here they know how important they are to this hockey club. Stevens is going to become a pretty good hockey player. He's willing to learn and he really wants to play. He's thrown some of the best checks I've seen.
"Veitch is quicker and more intense. He's stronger, too. Until he hurt his ankle last week, I could see a major change. He's been standing up well at the blueline, although he was a little tentative the last couple of games because of the ankle."
With the new rule permitting a team to dress 18 skaters, one above last season's norm, in addition to two goalies, Murray will dress six defenders for each game. That means Holt and Hutchison, the two intimidators, probably will alternate as partners with Blomqvist, while the other serves suspensions or nurses bruises.
"Hutchison is not an outstanding practice player, but he hasn't been in trouble in the games," Murray said. "He's a big, strong individual.
"Holt has played well and he plays a role for us. He intimidates, and when he or Hutchison or even Langway -- look at his size -- is out there, the other team tends to leave our smaller guys alone. Maybe this year our guys with skills will be able to use them, without looking out for sticks and elbows. They give us a dimension we didn't have before."
The big decision facing Murray and General Manager David Poile was picking the third man on the right side. Theberge spent all last season in Washington and at times was the only defenseman capable of bringing the puck out of the Capitals' end. Blomqvist, meanwhile, was up and down more than a Punch and Judy marionette, so frequently was he sent to Hershey and recalled.
"I like Greg and I like a lot of things he does offensively," Murray said. "But he gets in trouble defensively, from the strength aspect in front of the net as well as position-wise. I think we've upgraded our defense enough that he can stay down. Certainly, one of the best parts of our game in the exhibitions is the way we've moved the puck out of our zone.
"Timo is stronger and he's shown a little more defensively. He's a big, strong, young guy and we want to see what he can do. He didn't get that chance a year ago."
"I lifted weights and I feel more comfortable," Blomqvist said before he learned he had made the team. "I just hope I stay in one place, whichever they decide. The up and down didn't help last year."
Norwood has skated in routine drills, but has been forbidden contact until Oct. 14. He has a doctor's appointment scheduled today and hopes to play in Thursday's exhibition against Detroit at Hershey.
"My legs and lungs are okay, but my timing is off," Norwood said. "I need to play. Heck, the season will be a week old on Oct. 14. What I really want is to get in a good fight and get punched in the jaw. Then I'll know I'm okay."