When the Washington Capitals opened the season against the New York Rangers on Oct. 10, Kevin Hatcher was an untried rookie defenseman of considerable promise.

Tonight, 22 games later, the Capitals and Rangers meet again at Capital Centre and in the interim Hatcher has established himself as a leading contender for the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL's top rookie.

"I can't see any rookies in the league having more impact than Kevin Hatcher, especially with the injuries we've had," said Coach Bryan Murray. "He got over the little bit of indecision he had early and he's been doing a solid job, working on the power play, killing penalties and sticking up for our goaltender or anybody else on the ice.

"The last few games he's been really strong defensively. He's eliminating the man and not giving up many chances. He was very creative from the outset with the puck and now he has more poise in that area. He's moving the puck well."

The injuries Murray mentioned -- to Rod Langway, Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy -- forced him to give Hatcher greater responsibility and the youngster from Detroit responded. Now the defense is healthy and Hatcher's ice time figures to be reduced, to what extent only time and the team's fortunes will tell.

"I'm glad to have Scott back, even though I know it will cut my ice time," Hatcher said. "He's a really good defensemen and having him out there will make us that much better.

"Hopefully, I'll keep on playing and still get a lot of ice time. That's when I play best. With a lot of ice time, I'm right in the game all the time and I'm a lot sharper.

"The first 10 or 15 games I was a little upset because I wasn't getting that much ice time, but now I know that Bryan broke me in really well. I wasn't sure how they play in this league and I think going a little slowly at first helped me."

Hatcher has been skating alongside Rod Langway in recent games, with noteworthy success. During the Capitals' seven-game unbeaten streak, Hatcher has posted a plus-six rating, Langway plus-seven.

"At the beginning of the year, we were really running around in our zone," Hatcher said. "With Rod there is no left defense or right defense in our zone. You have to read off each other and switch men, and I'm doing that better now.

"I really feel comfortable with him. If we can read off each other, we'll be well off in our end."

Langway is delighted with the youngster's development.

"He's getting a lot of credit and he deserves it," Langway said. "He's a very talented rookie. He's found himself as a player, he knows what he can do and he works hard in practice.

"A lot of young players get tired by Christmas, playing a lot at a higher level than they're used to. Kevin got a lot of ice time the last month, but now that Scotty's back our ice time will be cut and I think it will work out for the best.

"We have seven talented defensemen and everybody is contributing. We're right where we want to be and we're ahead of where we thought we'd be."

Hatcher, 6 feet 4 and 205 pounds, is an imposing figure on the backline and it is surprising the way he is able to maneuver around opponents while carrying the puck.

Putting that puck in the net has been something else. Hatcher, who turned 19 on Sept. 9, had 26 goals and 37 assists for the North Bay (Ontario) Centennials last year and recorded a goal in a three-game cameo appearance with Washington. So he was expecting bigger things offensively than his current figures of one goal and four assists.

"I only have five points and I was hoping for 10 in the first 20 games," Hatcher said. "Last season, getting a goal so quickly I thought maybe it would be a little easier to score here.

"But I can't worry about that. That's my last concern. Lately I've just been working on my defensive play a lot and I think it's improving every game."

Terry Murray, the Capitals' assistant coach in charge of defense, has been working closely with Hatcher, but the youngster said that neither he nor Langway had been very critical lately, so they obviously are satisfied with his development. Of course, there is a long way to go, defense in the NHL being a demanding trade.

"From the start Terry has been telling me I have to get stronger," Hatcher said. "I have to keep two hands on my stick and I've been doing that lately. Of course, there are a lot of little things to work on. And I have to learn to turn from offense to defense a little quicker."

Hatcher was the 17th man drafted a year ago and it is obvious General Manager David Poile used that selection to advantage. None of the players chosen from 11 to 16 is playing in the NHL and of the top 10, only Pittsburgh center Mario Lemieux has made more of an impact.

"I'm really pleased with Kevin," Poile said. "His progress is much farther ahead than our best expectation. Bryan has no hesitancy in using him in any situation, where we wondered whether he would get to kill penalties at all his first year.

"Rod has been working with Kevin the same way Brian Engblom took Scott under his wing three years ago. It's a big advantage for our younger players to have the veterans work with them and bring them along, instill confidence rather than ruin them.

"It really helps a hockey club when veteran players don't look at youngsters as a threat to take their job, but in the light of how they'll help the team. That kind of attitude can only help the team."