Defenseman Kevin Hatcher, who came close to earning a spot on the Washington Capitals last year at 18, skated through the first session of the team's rookie camp at Mount Vernon yesterday with the confidence of someone who expects to be a National Hockey League regular at 19.

"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable," he said after the two-hour workout. "Last year I was nervous the first day, but not today. It wasn't just that this was a rookie camp. I'm confident; I feel that I belong."

The departure of Mike McEwen to Detroit and the release of Dave Shand have made a berth available for the 6-foot-3 1/2, 203-pounder.

"Detroit is my hometown and I opened my newspaper and McEwen's picture was there, that was how I learned he'd signed with the Red Wings," Hatcher said. "Of course, I had to feel good. His leaving made room and gave me a good chance to play on the hockey club."

Hatcher spent an exhausting summer making sure that he was ready for his big opportunity. He lifted weights, ran, rode a bike and performed numerous stretching exercises. As a result, he reported five pounds lighter than last year, although obviously stronger.

"I weigh 203, which is fine for me," said Hatcher, an Ontario junior all-star at North Bay last season. "I feel good. I know I have things to work on, like man-to-man coverage in front of the net and moving the puck a little quicker, but I think I can make the jump.

"Getting three games under my belt last year made me feel good. I was surprised to dress for a playoff game, but I knew they wanted to test me in a tough spot and I'm glad they did. I think I proved myself against the Islanders."

Hatcher and goalie Bob Mason were the only players among the 25 at yesterday's rookie camp who previously played for Washington. Mason reported in excellent condition and he had done 240 situps during the strength tests before the coaches ordered him to stop.

One bitterly disappointed spectator was center Dwaine Hutton, who is suffering from severely stretched stomach muscles and has been told he cannot skate for two weeks.

Another casualty is Warren Strelow, the goalie coach, who had a disk operation in July. He has no feeling in his right big toe, making skating difficult. He hopes to be on the ice for today's double session (9-11 a.m. and 3-5 p.m.) utilizing an air cast.