A coaching change usually gives a team a lift. The Minnesota North Stars, who play the Capitals at Capital Centre tonight at 7:30, have better reason than most to expect quick dividends.

Minnesota's head man, as of Thursday, is Glen Sonmor, who needed no job recommendations. Sonmor, 55 and a coach for more than a quarter century since an eye injury ended his playing career, had been director of player development.

He is the most successsful coach in the North Stars' 18-year history, with a 153-125-72 record. He took them to the Stanley Cup final in 1981 and was in the midst of his fourth straight winning season when he abruptly resigned in January 1983.

Sonmor, not reluctant to talk on any subject, readily acknowledges the circumstances. The problem was alcohol and Sonmor spent five weeks at the Care Unit in California to conquer it. He is convinced that his excessive drinking was not job-related and that it will not recur.

"I reached a point in my life where things weren't going too well and I had to do something about it," Sonmor said yesterday by telephone from Toronto. "That was 22 months ago and I'm sure I've overcome it.

"People ask me whether I will have a drinking problem as a coach. I don't think so. Other jobs are more stressful and people with this kind of problem have learned to handle it.

"I took the job again because they asked me to. I have a strong affiliation with this organization -- I've been with Louie (Nanne) since 1978 -- and we've been through a lot as an organization. I'm proud of what we've accomplished.

"I probably enjoy coaching more than anything else and I think I can do a good job. Right now, we are very fortunate that we're in the Norris Division, because as bad a start as we had (3-8-2 under Bill Mahoney), we still have a realistic chance to win the division. That's our immediate goal."

The North Stars' 7-6 victory in Toronto Sunday, following a 5-5 home-ice tie with Vancouver in Sonmor's debut, was only their second success in four weeks, yet they trail first-place Chicago by five points.

A year ago, the North Stars were dominated by the Capitals: 6-1, 4-0 and 5-1. Although Minnesota managed to reach the Campbell Conference final before losing to Edmonton, it was apparent that the club's many talented players either were unable or unwilling to grasp the defense-oriented system of Mahoney, a former Washington assistant.

It should be a happier team under Sonmor, as it was in the early '80s. Whereas Mahoney's principal problem was lack of communication, Sonmor has a knack of making people feel good, which is much of the battle in an emotional sport such as hockey.

"My problem is to shut up once in a while," Sonmor said. "I'm much more to enthusiasm, to team concern and a feeling of one player for another, than I am an Xs and Os coach. You have to have some rules and discipline, but I have more orientation toward motivating people.

"We have to be better defensively, but my approach is not to restrict the offensive capabilities of the players. Let 'em play. If you stay in the other team's end of the ice, that's the best possible defense. I've always emphasized offense and good specialty teams and if you check back, I think you'll find we were in the top six or seven in the league in defense."

The North Stars ranked fifth defensively in 1980-81, when they lost the Cup final to the New York Islanders. Minnesota's chief problem now is in penalty killing, since it has yielded 11 power play goals in the last three games and is in the NHL at 68.3 percent.

A familiar figure for Minnesota will be Dennis Maruk, whose 301st NHL goal was the game winner in Toronto. Maruk, who scored 182 of those goals with Washington, has eight this season.

"Dennis has played very well for us," Sonmor said. "He's at left wing with (Brian) Lawton and (Mark) Napier, and he centers our No. 1 power play unit.

"We made a decision to let Lawton play and since we basically go with three lines, Dennis would have been a fourth center or a specialist. We moved him to left wing, because at this point he deserves to play regularly."

Center Paul Gardner received the good news yesterday that he has earned a permanent position with the Capitals. He had two goals and two assists in a five-game "tryout."

"We'll see what he can do over the haul," Coach Bryan Murray said. "We know he can do it offensively. Maybe now we can play him in more situations than we have been."

Al Jensen, as planned, will be in the Capitals' goal tonight. A shot by Rod Langway during yesterday's practice left hard-luck Pat Riggin with a bruised right forearm.