PHILADELPHIA, SEPT. 27 -- Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile seemed a bit out of sorts this morning, as if it were March and his team was about to miss the playoffs instead of September and a week away from the start of the 1990-91 season.

Some of Poile's unhappiness surely stemmed from Wednesday night's 6-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. The Capitals have won just one exhibition game in seven tries. But exhibition games don't count. Their only value is as a means to evaluate players for the upcoming season.

The Capitals certainly have done that, but in the process they've learned that Kevin Hatcher and Don Beaupre are key elements in the formula. And neither man has fired or stopped a shot for the team this season.

Hatcher, whom the Capitals had been counting on even more than last season, when he played 25 minutes a game, is holding out. Beaupre, who carried the team in goal for half a season and had the team's best goals-against average in the playoffs, remains an unsigned free agent.

"I'm not talking about salaries or contracts anymore," Poile said. "It's between me and the players."

But Poile and the agents for Hatcher and Beaupre are not saying much to each other, and the Capitals face the prospect of not having either man for the foreseeable future. With those two players, there was uncertainty about the Capitals' chances this season, given the personnel changes that occurred this summer.

How confident is Poile that the group in camp now can be productive during the season?

"We have to see what we have in the next three games," Poile said. "We haven't chosen the team yet."

What answers can come from the last three exhibition games -- starting with tonight's contest against Philadelpia at the Spectrum -- are unclear. It's not like the Capitals are hiding anybody in the deep, dark recesses of Capital Centre, waiting for the Pittsburgh Penguins to arrive for the season-opener next Friday.

"I hope Kevin will be here and at some time we will reach an agreement with Donnie," Poile said. "But there is no use disguising this situation. Our two goalies are Mike Liut and Jim Hrivnak. Byron Dafoe probably will go back to juniors. Our defense is what you see. Kevin is not here."

Up front, the Capitals don't look bad. With the changing lineups and line combinations in the exhibition season, the cohesiveness isn't there yet, but that should come.

Defensively, there is more concern. Rod Langway, Bob Rouse and Mike Lalor are steady in their end. But victories require production at the other end, too, and Calle Johansson can't do it alone. The Edmonton Oilers showed last spring that a team that can quickly make the transition from defense to offense and back again is likely to be successful. That is where Hatcher would come in.

Hatcher has three years left on a contract that would pay him $200,000 a season. The Capitals' last offer was for $400,000 a season, but with another year tacked on. Ron Salcer, Hatcher's agent, is looking for a deal that will pay the player between $600,000 and $650,000 in a four-year contract.

Hatcher said he could handle the financial strain of sitting out an entire season but hopes it doesn't come to that.

"I don't know if the Washington Capitals can afford to have that happen," Salcer said. "They may come to the conclusion that they have to trade him." Salcer envisions a Jimmy Carson scenario. Carson left the Oilers early last season, demanded a trade and eventually was shipped to Detroit.

"I'm not going to trade Kevin Hatcher," Poile said. The Wayne Gretzky trade of 1988 proved no one in hockey is untouchable, but Poile said this is not about money. He cut off negotiations when Hatcher did not report to camp.

"I would say it's a principle, yes," said Poile, who has had the strong backing of owner Abe Pollin. "The principle is that he has three years left on his contract and won't come to training camp."

Because Beaupre is a free agent and can't play without a contract, Poile is talking with the goalie's agent, Ron Simon. But they haven't accomplished much.

Simon orginally wanted a deal that would have included a games-played bonus clause that would pay Beaupre reasonably close to the $455,000 Liut will make, if Beaupre plays most of the games.

Poile has rejected the notion of equating Beaupre and Liut, who has more experience and is coming off of a season in which he tied for the NHL lead with a goals-against-average of 2.53. Poile hasn't ruled out some form of incentive, but he said: "Our biggest problem is what they want for a base salary."

In their last conversation, last week, Simon offered four different proposals involving varying amounts of money and years. Poile rejected all of them.

For the short term, Beaupre's absence is not as critical. Liut came to camp in great shape and has looked smooth and efficient. But Liut will be 35 by midseason and, if he has to play more than 60 games, might be spent by playoff time. The idea was that he and Beaupre would roughly split the work. Coach Terry Murray said he could see needing three goalies if Liut were playing almost every night.

Before Wednesday night's game, Murray said there isn't a tremendous difference between Dafoe and Hrivnak. "Until there is a distinct difference, I will encourage that {Dafoe} stay around and practice with us," Murray said. "He's playing a game this week and we'll see what happens."

The Capitals have other options. They will see who is available in Monday's waiver draft, but that rarely yields a top-line player. A trade is certainly possible. The draft picks the Capitals received as compensation for Scott Stevens are still available.

"There is no sense pushing the panic button yet," Langway said this week. "As a team, we hope Kevin and Donnie come. If they don't, we'll have to find someone to fill in. It will be interesting to see who it is."