In the offseason, St. Louis Blues General Manager Ron Caron became the man his NHL counterparts loved to hate. At the moment, Caron is smiling.

The Blues have won seven of their last eight games and their 31 points have moved them even with Los Angeles and behind only Chicago and the New York Rangers in the overall standings.

Fellow management types are unhappy with Caron because many feel he and the Blues destroyed the salary structure of the league by giving right wing Brett Hull a $7 million contract this summer and former Washington Capitals defenseman Scott Stevens a $5.2 million deal.

Caron and the Blues have argued that salaries were bound to go up because of the players' union's release of salary figures last winter and the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement next September. The Blues argue they are just ahead of the game.

"We had nothing to do with the upgrade in salaries," Caron said. "We knew what we were doing."

The way Hull and the Blues are playing, it looks like he's right.

The Golden Brett led the league last season with 72 goals. But with 21 goals in 21 games so far this season, it doesn't take an actuary to figure out his 80-game pace is better than last season, when he made $125,000.

"This isn't baseball," Caron said. "I don't think {Mario} Lemieux or {Wayne} Gretzky or {Steve} Yzerman went flat after they signed."

The Blues raised ticket prices from $4 to $6, but with an increase of about 3,000 season tickets, much of the extra money in salaries has been paid for. The Blues have also been one of the better draws on the road, so it's helped other teams too.

"Our fans have appreciated what we've done," Caron said.

Stevens and Geoff Courtnall, another former Capital, have helped. Courtnall, who asked to be traded because he didn't want to deal with the aftermath of last spring's incident in Georgetown, is second to Hull in scoring.

Stevens's scoring has picked up of late, with nine assists in the first 18 days of the month, and he is fourth on the team in scoring. But Caron thinks he's also proved to be an excellent partner for Jeff Brown, whom Caron got in last season's trade with Quebec for Greg Millen. The players also elected Stevens captain.

Although only eight teams allowed fewer goals last season than the Blues, Coach Brian Sutter wanted to lower the team's goals-against figure. And at the moment, the Blues and Blackhawks -- who could produce an exciting Norris Division final series in April -- are tied for fewest goals allowed (53). Paul and Gino Cavallini have helped there, but much of the credit goes to goalies Vincent Riendeau (8-2-1, 2.28 GAA) and Curtis Joseph (7-3-0, 2.66 GAA).

The Capitals and Blues will meet for the first time Dec. 20 in St. Louis. The Blues' lone visit to Capital Centre will be March 19, 1991. Boos Mount for Devils

New Jersey has had trouble drawing fans, and the ones that do show have been booing Soviet defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov. But the boos might be louder for goalie Sean Burke when he takes the ice next time. Last Thursday, Burke lost his fifth straight game, 4-2, to Hartford in East Rutherford and afterward said: "I'm playing for the team and the fans who stick with us. The others can go to hell." . . .

In Detroit, Coach Bryan Murray has used goalie Tim Chevaldae in every game, although once it was in relief of Alain Chevrier and once Glen Hanlon relieved Chevaldae. "We're going to have to give him some rest, though I know I keep saying that," Murray said.

But Chevaldae is only the second most-used goalie. Although they've played fewer games than any other team (19), the Edmonton Oilers have not used anyone in goal but Bill Ranford. He has played well (3.08 GAA). The Oilers' problems have been injuries and a lack of offense.

Although Ranford likely would be worn out by that pace come playoff time, the Oilers are probably hoping he can last until they can get Grant Fuhr back from his drug suspension. Fuhr just recently resumed practicing and could be reinstated by mid-February. Headed Nordiques' Way

Quebec yesterday announced an agreement with 26-year-old Soviet defensman Alexei Gusarov, his Central Red Army team and the Soviet Hockey Federation that will allow Gusarov to join the Nordiques in December. General Manager Pierre Page said: "He's played quite a bit in North America, but I'm glad to know that, at 26, he's not as burned out as some of the other people that have come over."

The U.S. Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, based at Bolling, taped holiday messages from several Capitals players to troops in the Persian Gulf.