Are Dale Hunter and Clint Malarchuk happy about the trade last Saturday that sent them from the Quebec Nordiques to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Gaetan Duchesne, Alan Haworth and a first-round draft choice?

During the initial stages of a media luncheon at the Greenbelt Hilton yesterday, it was hard to tell.

"I've never seen four more serious-looking guys," one member of the Capitals' entourage said as the two straight-faced players displayed their new sweaters with help from straight-faced General Manager David Poile and straight-faced Coach Brian Murray.

There certainly has been plenty of opportunities for comparison. Poile, it seems, is often pulling off deals that have the potential to truly reshape and improve the Capitals. And this one, he says, is no exception.

Hunter, who had 10 goals and 29 assists in 46 games last season, "is one of the best players in the National Hockey League," Poile said. Hunter, a seven-year veteran who did not play fewer than 77 games or total fewer than 63 points in his first six seasons with Quebec, missed 34 games last season because of an ankle injury.

Malarchuk, who compiled a 3.40 goals-against average in 54 games last season, "is on the rise as one of the best goaltenders in the league," Poile said.

And, it became apparent, Hunter and Malarchuk are as excited about coming to Washington as Poile is about bringing them here.

"I played my junior hockey in Portland, Oregon," said Malarchuk, a native of Grande Prairie, Alberta. "And when I got drafted, I was really hoping to get drafted by a team in the States because I liked living down there so much. When I found out that I had been traded, I had to make a phone call to be sure. I didn't want to do a whole lot of jumping up and down for nothing. It was probably the happiest day of my career -- that and being named to the all-star team {which played against the Soviet Union in Rendez-Vous '87} this year."

Hunter, too, was happy to make the move.

"I really think it was just a matter of my having been someplace too long," he said. "I think the team peaked about two years ago when we won the {Adams} division. But then we got wiped out {3-0 in the first round} of the playoffs by Hartford {which had finished fourth}. We hadn't really played that well since then and I think they were trying to make some changes."

Another sign of that was the Nordiques' decision yesterday to "trade" Coach Michel Bergeron to the New York Rangers for a first-round draft choice in 1988.

"I guess they're just trying to start over," Hunter said.

In many ways, so are the Capitals. Since their playoff loss to the New York Islanders last season, they have re-signed center Bengt Gustafsson, lost free-agent goalie Bob Mason and made the trades.

"I think we now have four centers {Hunter, Gustaffson, Bob Gould, Mike Ridley} that can offset Philadelphia's four centers {Dave Poulin, Peter Zezel, Ron Sutter, Pelle Eklund}," said Capitals wing Lou Franceschetti, who will wear No. 25 next season after giving his No. 32 sweater to Hunter, who wore that number in Quebec.