The week of deliberation, debate and decision-making that preceded Scott Stevens's departure to St. Louis in mid-July was a very difficult period for Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile. But it hardly completed his summer chores.

Goalie Don Beaupre, who carried the load in the early part of last season and then formed half of an excellent playoff tandem with Mike Liut, still is without a contract 22 days before the start of training camp.

Poile said he spoke with Beaupre's agent, Ron Simon, early this week and is waiting for Simon to get back to him.

"Sept. 7 {the opening of training camp} is a little less than a month away and I don't think anybody is panicking," Poile said.

Beaupre agreed there is plenty of time.

"I'll be patient," Beaupre said from suburban Minneapolis, where he lives in the offseason. "Two weeks from now maybe I'll be a little more concerned."

Like Stevens and Beaupre, defenseman Bill Houlder played out his option and is a free agent subject to compensation, although because of his age (23) he falls into another category. Houlder played 41 games with the Capitals last season, the rest in Baltimore.

"We're talking," Poile said of the Houlder situation.

Last season, Beaupre earned $225,000, which was the fifth-highest base salary on the team by season's end, according to NHL Players Association figures. Ahead of him were Liut, right wing Dino Ciccarelli, defenseman Rod Langway and Stevens. Center Dale Hunter had a lower base salary, but made more with the addition of deferred compensation.

Beaupre held out for one day a year ago to work out a better deal for last season, using the young and unstable goaltending situation as leverage. This time, the Capitals have a quality, established goalie in Liut. But Beaupre is coming off a good season, did as well in the playoffs as Liut and helped the team reach the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time.

Beaupre, who missed five games in December with a groin-muscle pull, finished with a 23-18-5 record and 3.22 goals-against average. In the playoffs, he was 4-3, 2.69.

"I'd like to get some security," said Beaupre, who will turn 29 on Sept. 19. "But if we can't agree on that, then I'll have to go for one year. I'd like to sign for a few. Things have been unsettled the last few years, but I guess I could go through another one. I think they want me back and I want to be back."

Stevens's move to St. Louis sent shock waves through the league because of the money he was given ($5.1 million over four years) and because he was the first player from the top category of players to be signed by another team.

Rather than match the Blues offer, the Capitals took the compensation, which was $100,000 and the Blues' first-round draft picks in 1991 and 1992. If either is not in the top seven overall, the Capitals also will get first-round picks in 1993, 1994 and 1995.

Beaupre said he and Simon had "talked to a few teams" but those teams were just asking what Beaupre was seeking.

"I think I can make a general statement concerning everybody," said Poile, who is negotiating with 20 players whose contracts have expired or are entering option years. "It has been really slow this summer."

The drag is caused by two factors. First, when the NHL Players Association released salary figures in January, it gave players and agents much more information to use in making comparisons and so demands. Second, Stevens's success as a free agent and the prospect of a new collective bargaining agreement next summer (with potentially looser free-agency provisions) has caused players and agents to be bolder.

"I think there will be an extraordinary number of players who will play out their option," Poile said. "In the past, maybe there were six {per team}. Now maybe it could be twice as many and I think I speak for most of the league."

Because Beaupre will not report to camp without a contract, his situation is at or near the top of Poile's priorities. But there are others. Although both sides have been quiet about it, there have been discussions about an extension for Liut, who is entering the option year of a contract that paid him $455,000 last season.

Liut will turn 35 during the season, but he is coming off a season in which he recorded the best goals-against average (2.527) in the league. While Hartford assumed $100,000 of the cost of the remainder of Liut's contract when it traded him to the Capitals in March, according to sources, his salary would still be something of a benchmark for other players to use in comparison.

There is sure to be a lot of comparison because Liut is just one of 18 Capitals going into the option year of contracts. The others include Rod Langway, Mike Ridley, Michal Pivonka, newly acquired Peter Zezel, Bob Rouse, Alan May, Nick Kypreos, Steve Leach, Neil Sheehy, Bob Joyce and Tim Bergland. Each player entering an option year had to be offered a 15 percent raise as of last Friday in order for a team to retain rights to compensation.

Ridley, who turned 27 in July, was the Capitals' third-highest scorer last season after leading the team in 1988-89. He made just $197,500 last season and his agent, Rob Ingraham, thinks he should be among the top five best-paid players on the team.

Asked if he thought Poile would come up with more money sooner so as to avoid a repeat of the Stevens situation, Ingraham said: "A little, but not a lot. . . . David is very aware of the changes with disclosure, but he wants to be competitive. I don't think he wants to be known as Mr. Tightfist. He'd rather be known as Mr. Respected Business Manager."

The Capitals had the league's second-lowest payroll last season, but the Blues were the team behind them, so the Capitals are likely to start the year on the bottom.

While many fans agree with Poile that matching the Blues' offer for Stevens would have been unsound, some will want him to spend some money in hopes of pushing the team to the next level.

Poile bristles even at the suggestion he is too thrifty, and he points to California Angels pitcher Mark Langston as an example of how giving up big money can backfire. Last winter, Langston signed for $16 million; at the moment, he has a 5-15 record.

"I think we will reinvest, and I'm trying to get them signed," Poile said. " . . . You would like to sign as many players as you feel comfortable with. Some of the best years players have are going into option years and then you see a bust. Look at Mark Langston. There's no formula; nothing in Management 101."