Rick Dudley has known Mike Liut for more than a dozen years. Once upon a time, he helped talk a team out of trading the tall goaltender with a mind as sharp as a skate blade.

But Dudley now coaches the Buffalo Sabres and when he heard Monday that the Sabres' Adams Division foe, the Hartford Whalers, had traded his former roommate to the Washington Capitals, he was pleased.

"I was surprised by it, actually," said Dudley, who was the captain of the Cincinnati Stingers of the now-defunct World Hockey Association, which had a young goalie named Liut for two years in the late 1970s.

"He's played extremely well this year against us. He's been one of the top goalies in the NHL since he first came in. That's pride coming out. He's a proud athlete and he works extra hard. I'm glad to have him out of the division."

Capitals Coach Terry Murray met Liut at National Airport yesterday morning and took him to his first Capitals practice. It's uncertain when he will make his debut. Murray was pleased with the play of Don Beaupre in Tuesday's 1-1 tie with Buffalo and doesn't like to make change for change's sake, but he said Liut would play either Friday against Quebec at Capital Centre or Saturday in Philadelphia.

The 34-year-old Liut, who was acquired for forward Yvon Corriveau, had been in Hartford just over five years and was disappointed by the trade.

"If you're not disappointed, what does that say about where you were?" Liut asked rhetorically. "I liked Hartford and liked the organization, and in that situation you give yourself to the team. It's tough when you wake up the next day and you're not teammates any more."

Liut has been a pro -- "a consummate pro," Dudley said -- for 13 seasons (two in the WHA) and his next game will the 600th of his NHL career, so he understands the business.

"It's disappointing from a family standpoint, but it's not unlike a regular businessman who is transferred," said Liut, who is married (Mary Anne) with three young children (Jenna Michele, Justin, Blake).

"We live in a somewhat transient neighborhood in Hartford and two very good friends were transferred in the time we've been there. But it's part of life and I think the kids will become more well-rounded in their developing years. I don't think it's great to shuffle them around too much, but Washington is certainly an educational area and not a bad place for kids to spend some time."

The Capitals want Liut for the playoff drive and in the next couple of seasons while the young players develop. His goals-against average (2.64) and save percentage (.900) are among the top four in the NHL. "Statistically, this is as good a year as I've had in hockey," said Liut, who pointed out that Boston's 35-year-old Reggie Lemelin (2.69 GAA) has had his best years after turning 31.

So why did Hartford trade him? Whalers General Manager Eddie Johnston's team has made the playoffs, but is behind three of the best teams in the league and may have decided that by time the rest of the squad can challenge for the Stanley Cup, Liut will be too old. Johnston has a fine prospect in Kay Whitmore he wants to try. And unloading Liut's contract, which pays him $455,000 a year, was certainly a consideration.

Some in the Hartford organization thought Liut was headed out of the league after last season. While posting a record of 13-19-1, he appeared in the fewest games (35) and had the highest goals-against average (4.25) of his NHL career. There also were disagreements with then-coach Larry Pleau.

"He'll stand up for himself," Johnston said of Liut. "If he thinks he's right, he'll say so. Unfortunately, it got out of hand last season with him and Pleau. But Mike's a quality guy."

Liut said he "can't put a finger" on why 1988-89 was a problem.

"Last year was certainly a motivating factor for this year, but every year is new, with new challenges," said Liut, who also isn't sure why the success has returned.

Unlike most NHL players, who began their careers in junior hockey, Liut went the college route.

"I wanted to go to college and my parents were involved, but involved as parents should be," Liut said of his parents, Tony and Gloria, who live in the Toronto suburb of Woodbridge. "I grew up looking at junior hockey as the steppingstone to the NHL, but school had become an alternative. {Ken} Dryden, {Tony} Esposito, Red Berenson, were great players that had come out of college."

Liut left Bowling Green University with a degree in business and a 53-27-1 regular season record.

"He was an outstanding ambassador for the program, along with his father, Tony," said Ron Mason, who coached at Bowling Green before moving to Michigan State.

Liut has this season and then an option year on his contract. He said he would like to sign an extension that would keep him here for several more years while he explores business and television options for his nonhockey future.

"I've been traded here and this is now home," Liut said. "At 34, you'd like to think this the last time you're going to have to move."

Capitals Notes: Murray said defenseman Scott Stevens would begin his league-imposed, three-game suspension Tuesday against St. Louis. That way, Stevens will not miss any games against Patrick Division foes. . . . Rod Langway had a slight "twinge" in his groin muscle and was given the day off from practice.