DETROIT, DEC. 16 -- If defenseman Rod Langway's ailing back continues its current rate of improvement, Langway will return to the Washington Capitals' lineup on Jan. 1.

That was the essence of a medical bulletin issued today by the Capitals after Langway underwent a series of examinations this week.

Langway, bothered by a ruptured disk since Nov. 25, skated Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. He was checked out Monday by Dr. Stephen Haas, the team physician, and Tuesday by Dr. Sam Wiesel, orthopedic surgeon at George Washington University Hospital.

"Rod has shown continued and gradual improvement since his release from the hospital {Dec. 9}," said General Manager David Poile. "He will continue to skate on a daily basis and follow a course of exercises for his back.

"Our projection is that if he continues to improve at the current rate, he can play in approximately two weeks. Jan. 1 is the target date we're looking at right now."

That also was the date Langway had mentioned Monday as his earliest possibility for a return to action. He said he was not pleased with that prospect, but team management obviously is, considering the prolonged back problems endured by such players as Mike Bossy, Paul Reinhart and Wendel Clark.

Apparently, Langway's future depends on how much pain he can endure.

"Rod is still in pain," Poile said. "He's on his own now, as to how hard he wants to push himself."

Langway's return would give a boost to a team desperately in need of one. After Tuesday's 5-3 loss in Toronto, the players held a brief closed-door meeting.

Among the points at issue was the possibility that changes would be necessary if the team continued to stumble along in fifth place in the Patrick Division.

Mike Gartner, the acting captain in Langway's absence, said, "We have to realize we have to get things going or changes will be made. We have to be prepared to play 60 minutes of hockey. The coaching staff has us well prepared every night, but we're not getting the job done."

The early minutes in Toronto offered a good example. Coach Bryan Murray set up a dump play off the opening faceoff that worked to the point where Mike Ridley was unguarded with the puck in front of the Toronto net. Ridley's shot missed, however, and the Maple Leafs wound up scoring the game's first goal at the other end when Washington could not clear the puck.

"It has to do with effort, it has to do with finishing around the net, it has to do with playing some hockey in your own end," Murray said. "We had a guy on every line not working and I don't think we've ever tried to handle the puck in our end so much in one game. We'd overhandle it, get rid of it and get in trouble."

Poile said he has not threatened any players with trade or demotion and at present had no plan to make changes. But he said a reevaluation would be made after the Dec. 26 game against Philadelphia.

"I would hope that the players would feel they're not playing to their capabilities," Poile said. "It's an old story and I'm sick and tired of hearing how good we're supposed to be and not playing like it. We should be jelling as a team, but obviously after 30 games we're not."

On the subject of trades, Poile said, "Not right now. I hope I'm not in a minority in believing we still have a good hockey club. That was the way I felt entering the season, but it is very disappointing and worrisome right now, when you see where we are."

"If I get into the heart of the team to trade a quality player or change the bottom half, it could affect the chemistry. If I do that, I'm tampering with what I already believe to be a good hockey club."