David Poile had two victories Tuesday, and they were almost as sweet as the bag of chocolates he got from his secret Santa Claus.
"I was thinking this morning that we've really come a long way from where we were a couple days after the playoffs ended," the Capitals' general manager said yesterday morning before his team used a day off to visit the White House.
"With all the problems we had -- with Scott Stevens's free agency situation, the holdouts and contract problems in training camp -- I think it was all reflected in our 2-5 start."
The Capitals -- who were 14-15-4 at this stage last season -- are 16-10 since that bad-tasting beginning. The last of those wins was over the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night, and they should beat a few more teams after the latest in a string of changes over the last five months.
In that time, Stevens and Geoff Courtnall have left. And Mike Lalor, Peter Zezel, Peter Bondra, Dave Tippett, Mikhail Tatarinov and, lastly, Dimitri Khristich, have arrived.
Khristich, a 21-year-old Soviet center who some think already is a wonderful player, showed up Tuesday afternoon and will practice with the Capitals today. By then, his luggage hopefully will have completed the journey that he and it began in Kiev two days previously. Khristich will play three games this weekend in Baltimore to help him get his bearings and shed jet lag.
"It's good, but I don't even know where Washington is yet," Khristich said through interpreter John Chapin of the chance to see the White House. Khristich had seen only the Beltway before yesterday's trip downtown. And the stay in Baltimore will be quick. He wasn't brought here to bolster the Skipjacks.
"I thought he was probably the most complete young player they had over there, the one whose style was most suited to play in the NHL," said Jack Ferreira, the general manager of the expansion San Jose Sharks. Bear in mind, Ferreira's comparison includes rookie Sergei Fedorov, who has 31 points in 30 games for Detroit.
When Poile talks about his team having come a long way, he means since May 9, when it was eliminated from its first Stanley Cup semifinal series.
The Georgetown incident, which involved accusations by a 17-year-old girl against several players, occurred two days later. Seven weeks later, a grand jury decided against any indictments. That was a relief to the organization. but Stevens then signed a $5.1 million offer sheet with St. Louis.
The Capitals decided "almost immediately," Poile said, not to match it. That was the first and -- for the moment -- remains the most significant change. The return on that decision for the Capitals still is uncertain. They will have at least two, but possibly five, first-round draft picks from St. Louis. They have assigned one scout to watch midget games with 14-year-olds to be better prepared if they want to use those picks.
"Nobody has called me about them," said Poile, who equates them with savings bonds with far-off maturity dates. "They are assets. At some point, they could be used to acquire players."
Courtnall, one of the players involved in the Georgetown incident, asked to be traded. He went to St. Louis for Zezel and Lalor. Lalor has been a steady, stay-at-home defenseman. Zezel has missed the last six weeks with a sprained ankle, so the jury is out on that one. But they were three more changes.
"In training camp, there were a lot of Doubting Thomases in the hockey world, whether they be in the media or our own players about what kind of team we would have," Poile said.
But what about Poile?
"Yes, I had some doubts too, but I also knew we were working on some pretty significant situations with Tatarinov and Khristich. I, along with others, didn't know the significance of the Scott Stevens loss. It is still a big loss, but what we've found is that other players, given more opportunity, have responded."
When the deadline to match the Stevens offer came, Jack Button, the Capitals' director of player personnel and recruitment, was at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Helsinki.
Earlier that day, he had been two hours to the north, in Vierumaki. There training was the Soviet national team that included Tatarinov and Khristich. The work that Button put in that day and in years past would help alleviate the loss of Stevens.
"You do react to certain things, no question about that," Button said. "But if the planning is there, you don't have to react as violently or quickly. We knew the day before the season started that Tatarinov was coming."
That meant the Capitals didn't need to trade for an offensive defenseman, as had been discussed after Stevens's departure.
"Now, Peter Bondra has been a surprise," said Button, who drafted Bondra in June. "We knew he was a good player, but we didn't project him to be this good this quickly. But then we didn't project that Dino Ciccarelli would break his thumb."
Bondra's scoring made him rookie of the month for November. His friendly but humble personality has meant he has become a welcome addition to the locker room.
"I worry about that all the time," Poile said of team chemistry. "But the foremost thing you have to do is bring in good hockey players. If we brought in a player, signed him to big money and it became obvious that his major motivation was the money, then we'd have a real problem with chemistry, togetherness and our ability to win.
"But Peter Bondra loves to play hockey, he wants to score goals and get better. Mikhail Tatarinov wants to be recognized as one of the better players in the NHL. They have goals. I'm always talking about that. I find in this day and age, everybody has financial goals. That's great, but what are the other goals?"
The imports will slow down now. Poile wants to let this group settle, allow Coach Terry Murray to find a group (hopefully healthy) that he likes. For if the Capitals were once just hoping to make the playoffs, they are now aiming higher.
"I don't want to get carried away," Poile said. "I feel good, but we're only a couple of games over .500 and there's a lot of the season left. But I'm optimistic about our team.
"I'm pleased that, organizationally, we put behind us the adversity that some said would be our downfall. Now, we've put ourselves in a situation where we really believe we have a good team that can compete with all the teams in the NHL and a team on the rise."