Unless Monday's National Hockey League waiver draft results in an unexpected shuffle of personnel, the Washington Capitals will begin their 12th season Thursday with virtually the same lineup that dropped three straight games to the New York Islanders in April and was eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round.

This circumstance does not bother General Manager David Poile. He prefers to look at it as the same lineup that burned up the NHL with a 25-4-2 record from Nov. 25 to Jan. 27.

"We haven't made many changes and I don't think that's a bad thing," Poile said. "I have faith in the personnel on this hockey club. It would be nice to find one more big winger who can score 40 or 50 goals, but we're still working on that."

Poile has discussed possible trades with the other 20 general managers all summer, but the sole consummation was a deal sending Glen Currie to Los Angeles for Daryl Evans, a left wing already in Binghamton.

"I'm very surprised by the limited amount of action during the offseason," Poile said. "A lot of clubs needed to make deals more than the Washington Capitals, but everyone insisted on getting quality players -- no three or four for one -- and unless you have a gaping hole to fill, dealing an apple for an apple doesn't help. It just upsets your stability."

Only three members of the current 25-man roster never have played for the Capitals and two of them, center David Jensen and right wing Ed Kastelic, are recuperating from injuries and unlikely to play until November. The third, left wing Yvon Corriveau, may yet be returned to his junior team in Toronto.

Although the personnel is the same, there will be tactical changes. For one, Bengt Gustafsson is scheduled to play center, after manning a left wing berth for most of his previous six years here.

"Bengt Gustafsson at center ice is a new look for us and with three lines centered by (Bob) Carpenter, (Dave) Christian and Gus it will make it harder to check us," Poile said. "Gus is a creative player, probably the best player we've had from day one in training camp. He's been plagued by injuries in the past, but skating at center he won't be so vulnerable along the boards."

The three centers Poile mentioned figure to anchor the lines that will see the most action. Coach Bryan Murray has favored four lines in the past, but with so many of Washington's forwards limited offensively, he plans to reduce the ice time of his 10th, 11th and 12th forwards.

Murray has not yet set his lines, but Carpenter is expected to be teamed with Mike Gartner. They were split up in the playoffs to keep checkers honest and the results were not propitious, although Murray refuses to second guess himself.

"It never really bothered me," Murray said. "There will always be arguments either way. I feel we made ourselves a little more versatile and certainly the opportunities came and more people were involved. We just couldn't score on Billy Smith."

Bob Gould and Craig Laughlin are the probable right wings behind Gartner, with Greg Adams, Gaetan Duchesne and Alan Haworth on the left side. However, Haworth's value would be enhanced on the right wing, so any of three players -- Lou Franceschetti, Andre Hidi or Gary Sampson -- might move up on the left with Laughlin dropping to the fourth line. Doug Jarvis, the fourth center who has played in 800 straight games, is not expected to see as much ice time as last year, although he remains the No. 1 penalty killer and faceoff man.

The defense seems solid, with Rod Langway in top form, Kevin Hatcher playing well and Larry Murphy obviously more confident following his participation in the World Championships.

Peter Andersson has been showing more intensity and Darren Veitch proved last year that he is a solid NHL defender. Although Scott Stevens was unimpressive in exhibition games, nobody seriously questions his ability. Timo Blomqvist will be the seventh man.

Like Murphy, goaltender Pat Riggin seems to have benefited from his experience in the World Championships. His partner, Al Jensen, is healthy after fighting back and knee injuries for more than a year.

It was apparent last season that the Capitals lost their drive following a late January sweep of the Islanders. The regular 80-game schedule obviously is a mere warmup for a team of Washington's ability, but Murray disagrees with those who suggest the team try a low-key approach and gradually build up steam for the playoffs.

"Our experiences last year were never far from my mind this summer," Murray said. "As a result, I will prepare some individual players in somewhat different ways. We'll go with three lines at times and Doug Jarvis, for one, won't get quite so much ice time.

"But in the regular season do you try any less? I don't think so. I think you always play to win. We didn't lose because of fatigue."

Murray's coaching staff has been enlarged, with Ron Lapointe joining Terry Murray as an assistant. Lapointe guided Shawinigan, Quebec, to the Memorial Cup final a year ago.

Things are brightening for the Capitals at the ticket office, where marketing director Lew Strudler reported the season-ticket sale had reached 6,810, highest in the club's history and about 1,000 more than a year ago.

With 10-game plans almost doubled to 5,500, sellouts are virtually certain for games against the Islanders, Flyers and Edmonton Oilers.

"It's moving up in the right direction," Strudler said. "We've accomplished a lot in one year, not to mention the last three years."

Three years ago, there was speculation the Capitals would disappear. Now the big question is: Can the Capitals win the Stanley Cup?