Washington Capitals defenseman Kevin Hatcher, taking advantage of his dramatic improvement in the last year and the escalating salary structure in the NHL, yesterday signed a four-year contract reportedly worth about $3 million.

"Obviously, it's been a difficult situation and one I'm glad is behind us," General Manager David Poile said. "We look forward to another four years with Kevin and we hope his progress continues as it has the past couple seasons. The future looks very bright for Kevin. His development will have a lot to do with our success as a team."

This contract makes the 24-year-old Hatcher the highest-paid player on the team, passing goalie Mike Liut, who makes $455,000 a season. At the moment, Hatcher, now in his sixth full season, is the second-leading scorer on the team with 17 points and plays more than any other defenseman.

Hatcher held out most of training camp while seeking to renegotiate his contract, which had two years plus an option left and would have paid him $200,000 this season. While that's a good hunk of money, it paled in comparison to what top defensemen have been getting. In his new deal, another year was added, but he will be paid, apparently, an average of about $750,000 per season.

"This contract makes Kevin Hatcher the sixth-highest-paid defenseman in the NHL, with the ability to move up the ladder based on his play," said Ron Salcer, Hatcher's agent. "The Capitals made a solid commitment to Kevin and we're pleased with how it was handled and the outcome."

The five ahead of Hatcher in terms of reported average salary are St. Louis's Scott Stevens ($1.28 million), Boston's Ray Bourque ($1.25 million), Pittsburgh's Paul Coffey ($1.22 million), Chicago's Chris Chelios ($1.2 million) and Calgary's Al MacInnis ($1 million).

Salcer spoke of "mechanisms" that could raise Hatcher's salary, although he declined to give much detail. MacInnis reportedly has a clause that pays him an extra $150,000 if he wins the Norris Trophy (given to the NHL's best defenseman). That extra amount then becomes part of his salary in the following years of the contract.

The Capitals will try to end a three-game losing streak tonight at 8 against Chicago at Capital Centre. Defenseman Rod Langway missed Wednesday's 5-3 loss in Toronto because of his divorce trial in Prince George's County Circuit Court. Langway will play tonight and Saturday night in Hartford, but he will miss Monday's game in Detroit, according to his attorney Mark Barondess, because the trial resumes that day.

Defense was part of the problem against the Maple Leafs, but all hands joined in. After 20 games, the Capitals are 10-10. It wouldn't be surprising if they spend the next 60 games hovering near the .500 mark.

"I'm very disappointed with our forwards as a whole; not with their work ethic, but with their scoring," Poile said. "I thought we would generate a lot more scoring. The fact that we're one quarter of the way through with only one forward with more than five goals {John Druce has 10} is a matter of great concern."