Defenseman Kevin Hatcher ended his 24-day holdout and joined the Washington Capitals for practice yesterday at Mount Vernon Recreation Center, and his agent was scheduled to fly in from Los Angeles last night to negotiate with team officials.

Hatcher looked fit and trim, seemed to enjoy being with his friends and teammates again, and the defensive prospects for the Capitals brightened considerably.

But all is not yet copacetic.

There is still a new contract to be negotiated or an old one to be reworked. If the contract situation is not resolved, Hatcher said he would not guarantee he will be available to play when the Capitals start the regular season Friday night at 8 at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Asked if Friday was a deadline for a resolution, he said: "I would have to say the next three days are big days."

Hatcher's arrival caught many in the organization by surprise.

"I didn't even know he was going to be here until this morning," Coach Terry Murray said after yesterday's practice.

Hatcher's agent, Ron Salcer, was scheduled to arrive here last evening and begin negotiations. Neither Salcer nor Capitals General Manager David Poile could be reached for comment.

"I'm optimistic about the whole thing," Hatcher said. "I'm still a little bit upset that I had to sit at home for two or three weeks, but I'm hoping they can take care of it in the next three days."

With the departure of Scott Stevens to St. Louis, Hatcher is being counted on to carry a heavier burden this season. He is coming off his best season, in which he scored 13 goals, assisted on 41 and made the all-star team for the first time. Hatcher turned 24 on Sept. 9, but with five full seasons as a Capital and Stevens gone, he has been with the club longer than any other player but Rod Langway.

Hatcher has three years (including an option year) left on his contract, which will pay him $200,000 this season. That is not a lot of money for quality defensemen in the NHL.

Salcer has been looking for a deal that would pay his client between $600,000 and $650,000 a season for four years. Salcer doesn't necessarily want a four-year contract, but the Capitals have said that any renegotiation would involve adding another year to the current deal. The team's best previous offer was in the neighborhood of $400,000 a year.

The Capitals stopped talking with Salcer when Hatcher did not report to the team's training camp on Sept. 7. There were conversations between Salcer and Poile on Sept. 18 and Sept. 21, but they produced nothing.

However, top Capitals officials made contact with Salcer in the last day or so, and Hatcher then decided it was worth coming to camp. He drove to Washington Sunday night with his wife, Mary-Ann.

"Ronnie received a call and he said they were willing to do everything they could," Hatcher said. "We got an indication. . . . a good feeling that they were ready to sit down and try to make us happy. Nothing as far as salaries has been brought up, but that's why my agent is coming."

Even if the contract situation is cleared up, neither Hatcher nor Murray was sure Hatcher would be in the lineup because of his conditioning.

"I'm not going to put him in a position where he's uncomfortable," Murray said. "I've seen it happen too many times when a guy misses training camp. It looks good for the first day or two because of the energy, but the next thing you know, fatigue sets in, and then you have a pulled muscle or something like that."

Hatcher has been working out on his own and skating near his parents' home in suburban Detroit. It is not the same, though.

"I haven't even thought about it," Hatcher said when asked whether he could be ready for Friday night. "It wasn't too bad today, a little rusty.

"I've been skating by myself, but it's tough to say {when he would be back to normal}. I don't think I've lost a lot. I'll probably need a couple of good practices and games before I get to the top of my game."

Hatcher got a ride home after practice from Dale Hunter, who is not the most talkative player on the team, but one with a sense of humor.

"You know how Magic {Johnson of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers} gave up some money so they could sign that player," Hunter said with a laugh and within earshot of Hatcher. "I gave it up so Hatchy would come back. The only problem is that would be my whole contract. I'd be playing for the love of the game."