LAKE PLACID, N.Y., SEPT. 13 -- Defense always has been a trademark of the Washington Capitals. The team hopes it still is, and that only some of the names will be changed to replace the departed.

There will be at least one, and possibly two or three, new faces in that group when the games begin in earnest Oct. 5. Who they are will begin to be determined in Friday night's first exhibition game, against the New York Rangers at 7:30 at Baltimore Arena.

"Everybody is looking good, but the games will make or break you with that spot," said Chris Felix, one of the handful of hopefuls. "It depends on what {Capitals Coach} Terry {Murray} is looking for."

Murray has said he would like to keep seven defensemen. There are some givens. Captain Rod Langway will be there. If Kevin Hatcher ever returns from his holdout -- which is now a week old with no sign of ending -- he will be there. So will Bob Rouse, Calle Johansson and Mike Lalor.

Lalor is new to the team. He is now a Capital in part because Geoff Courtnall wanted to be traded and partly because Scott Stevens signed as a free agent with St. Louis. The Blues sent Lalor and center Peter Zezel to the Capitals for Courtnall and for not matching Stevens's offer sheet with the Blues.

Stevens spent eight seasons here, so his departure means a new mix on defense. Lalor is highly thought of by many, but his is not an offensive game. Stevens, on the other hand, was a key member of the power play.

Veteran Neil Sheehy, 30, came to camp in great shape and remains the favorite to fill the sixth spot, but it is written only in pencil. Most of his challengers will play tonight against the Rangers. Besides Felix, Kent Paynter and Mark Ferner are the key wanna-bees.

"This is their time," Murray said. "Who it is going to be I don't know."

Of the other defensemen in camp, Bob Babcock and Bill Houlder have the best chance to join the challengers. Houlder, 24, only signed Sunday. He was on hand for Monday's practice, but the coaches have left him with the B squad since he arrived. He is more of an offensive player, accumulating 12 points in 41 games with the Capitals last season.

At this point last season, some in the organization thought the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Babcock should be released. But he played 67 games for Baltimore last season. His style is simple: Stop opponents from scoring and beat them up if they mess with one of his teammates. His modus operandi is closest to that of Sheehy, although Sheehy is more likely to distract opponents with his biting verbal commentary.

Paynter, Felix and Ferner all spent most of last season in Baltimore, but each played a few games with the Capitals. Paynter is thought of a stronger defensive player. Felix, who was the top-scoring defenseman for the Skipjacks, is better at the other end. Ferner is somewhere in the middle.

Paynter played 13 regular season games, but then, with Hatcher injured, played in three of the four games against Boston in the Wales Conference finals.

"Finishing the year with the club gives you a high going home for the summer," said Paynter, 25, who is 6 feet and 183 pounds. He was signed as a free agent last summer after playing just three NHL games with Chicago. He has tried to add some offensive spark to his game to avoid the "defensive defenseman" label.

"I worked hard on my game to install some offense," Paynter said. "I'm not an offensive defenseman. But if I get a chance to jump up in the play, or if I got a chance on the power play, I'll give it my best shot."

Ferner, also 25, was acquired from Buffalo for Scott McCrory on June 1, 1989. He played two games with the Capitals last year, and had 35 points in 74 games with the Skipjacks.

"There is definitely an opportunity with Scott gone and, with Kevin holding out, it gives the coaches an opportunity to look at other guys," Ferner said. "Last year, the spots seemed pretty secure."

The longer Hatcher holds out, the better for the other hopefuls. Coaches here -- and with other teams -- will see them play more. All three players are going into the option years of their contracts and will see how their seasons go, how the salary structure changes and what expansion and a new collective bargaining agreement might mean. It is not "good or bad" as Paynter said, just business. But how they play may also affect the length of Hatcher's holdout.

"They all know what Kevin can do. It's a matter of what he's worth," Felix said. "I'd say Kevin is in the top 10 {among defensemen}. With Scott gone, Kevin has to be the No. 1 man here. If we start the season without him and the team does well, then there is no rush for management and more pressure on Kevin to come in. If we get off to a slow start, then the ball is in his court. Both sides can afford to wait, but it's a matter of who's going to give in first."