The Washington Capitals began hitting each other in earnest yesterday. Nobody was more earnest than Craig Laughlin.

Laughlin, 28, notified the young players aspiring to take away his job as a mucker and grinder that only the most dedicated need apply. In the first of a series of intrasquad scrimmages, he backed up his surprise No. 1 selection in the draft for the three scrimmage teams by repeatedly dumping and jabbing opponents.

Laughlin concluded his demonstration of aggressiveness with a check that left Bob Carpenter icing down a sore right shoulder.

"He's trying to earn a job and some of the left wings against him are trying to earn jobs, too," said Coach Bryan Murray. "Today he won the battles. He ran the hell out of people."

Laughlin had a simple explanation.

"The bottom line is that it's a job and I've got a wife and kid," he said. "You can feel the youth movement coming in . . . I'm in good shape, which ought to be enough, but we all know they do look at age.

"The kids will all get their chance in a year or two, but as far as I'm concerned they can wait a while, the same way I did. I don't want them to take my job now when everything's going good. I want to play at least until I'm 30, then retire here and get a job in Washington."

Laughlin is playing out his option, after three seasons in which his production varied from 16 to 20 goals and from 44 to 52 points. He knows he needs a good year to guarantee a new contract and the first step is to earn a starting role.

"I'm not going to get you 40 goals, but I can get 15 to 30," Laughlin said. "I'm consistent; not many players get 50 points every season. Obviously, I'd like to score 70 goals, but I know my limitations. I'm aiming for 50 points and with management knowing what else I contribute, that ought to get me an extension.

"This is a good organization, because they appreciate what you can do and they have some loyalty to you. (General Manager) David Poile told me that, 'We know what you can do and it will take a young kid playing great to beat you out.' Another team would just say, 'There are 20 jobs and they're all open.' Of course, I know I have to do my part, which is why I'm working so hard."

According to NHL and Capitals records, today is Laughlin's 28th birthday. He claims, however, that the correct date is Sept. 14.

"They mixed it up a few years ago and I didn't say anything, because guys were buying me beer and people were giving me presents," Laughlin said. "Nobody is ever around on the 14th, because camp hasn't opened."

Only Laughlin's birth certificate could confirm the accuracy of that story, since he is noted for a repertoire of yarns. Playing out his option has given Laughlin a new subject for exaggeration and he compared his situation to Pittsburgh's Warren Young, who scored 40 goals last season and signed a four-year, million-dollar contract with Detroit.

"This is going to be the Warren Young II story," Laughlin said. "I'm 28 and I'm going to score 40 goals and get a million. But if I did score 40, I'd stay here for less money. This is like a family and everyone gets along well."

Just call that first scrimmage a family quarrel.