ST. LOUIS, JAN. 16 -- Hoping to add by subtracting, the Washington Capitals this morning traded center Peter Zezel and defenseman Bob Rouse to the Toronto Maple Leafs for former all-star defenseman Al Iafrate.

Iafrate -- who had asked to be traded and has been on the block for months -- was scheduled to join the Capitals tonight in Minnesota and make his debut with the team Thursday night against the North Stars at Met Center.

Iafrate, who will be 25 in March, has been an all-star twice and with more physical talent than Rouse or Zezel. But Iafrate (pronounced E-a-FRA-te) had major knee surgery last spring and, collectively, the Capitals gave up a lot.

Both Rouse and Zezel were popular players. Rouse, 26, was a steady, stay-at-home defenseman who had taken on more of a leadership role since coming to the team in March 1989 with Dino Ciccarelli from Minnesota.

Zezel arrived last summer with Mike Lalor in the Geoff Courtnall trade. Tuesday's 7-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues was just the 20th game of the season for the 25-year-old Zezel, who badly sprained his ankle Oct. 30.

General Manager David Poile said he would have made this trade even if the Capitals had been in first place in the Patrick Division instead of fifth, as they are, and it wasn't a change for the sake of change.

"No, it wasn't, but in light of how we're playing, maybe it will serve notice that we're not happy," Poile said by phone from Washington. "But I would hope I didn't have to make a trade to have that understood. This isn't a trade for today or the future. I hope it is a combination of both."

Poile and Toronto General Manager Floyd Smith completed the deal at about 7 a.m. (CST) today after settling on the fundamentals Tuesday night. Poile phoned Capitals Coach Terry Murray at the team's hotel here at about 7:20 a.m. and Murray informed Rouse and Zezel of the trade.

"I never had a chance to play, so I don't know what to think," said Zezel, who had seven goals and five assists in 20 games. Zezel seemed disappointed, but he is single and had not had time to put down stakes.

Rouse, whose wife, Dianne, recently gave birth to their first child, son Torrey, appeared more shaken by the trade. A big man (6 feet 1, 210 pounds), he doesn't take guff from anybody on the ice, but the red eyes told you he was hurt.

"You're told by management that you're part of the team, part of the long-term plan," said Rouse, who had five goals and 15 assists this season. "But when another player becomes available, they forget that. It confirms what I learned the last time -- that it is a business. Management stresses team, team, team, but it doesn't take long to make a phone call."

Players were in the lobby early for breakfast and departure to practice and then the airport. There were surprised looks on many faces.

Rouse and Calle Johansson were playing partners and roommates on the road, but it was the more offensive-minded Johansson who seemed to be the more likely trade candidate.

"I was close to Bob. We had been neighbors, roommates on the road and played together, so I feel bad," Johansson said.

Some thought Poile made a good deal. Others weren't so sure. Poile's deal last spring in which he acquired goalie Mike Liut for Yvon Corriveau, seemed masterful and probably will be called a success by all, even if Liut never plays another game. The jury will be out a bit longer on this one.

"It seems like they gave up a lot, but who knows?" former Capital Scott Stevens said of his old team, which practiced before the Blues at St. Louis's practice rink in suburban Brentwood.

"I gave up a fair bit to make this deal," Poile said. "I hope Al Iafrate plays well enough to prove that it is a good deal."

Toronto has been searching for centers and that is where the Capitals were deepest. Michal Pivonka flourished after moving back to center when Zezel was injured. Mike Ridley and Dale Hunter also have been members of the team for several years.

Hunter, Ridley and Zezel all were rumored to be trade possibilities and another player said the three who remain will play better now that the issue is settled. Toronto wanted Zezel in part because he is from nearby Scarborough and for what he showed with the Blues the last two seasons.

"{Lack of} familiarity didn't help Zezel," Poile said. "He missed so many games and we knew so much more about Hunter, Ridley and Pivonka."

As for Rouse, Poile said, "I didn't want to trade Rouse, but I had to give them a defenseman back."

Iafrate is 6-3, 215, so he and Kevin Hatcher will form a pair of twin towers. They played midget hockey together in Detroit and both were first-round draft picks. The Maple Leafs picked Iafrate fourth overall in the 1984 draft. Iafrate played just one season of junior hockey and with the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

"He is a very talented young player and his best years are still ahead of him," Murray said.

"He gives us a defenseman who can play in a lot of situations and log a lot of ice time," Poile said. "A few years back, we had {Rod} Langway, Stevens, Larry Murphy and Hatcher. They were four big horses who could play a lot of situations. Stevens and Murphy are gone and though Rod is playing well, he doesn't handle as much ice time as well. Now we can build the defensive corps around two big horses and talented players in Hatcher and Iafrate."

Still, this is Iafrate's seventh full NHL season. He's played 472 league games with 82 goals and 169 assists. He was an all-star in 1987-88 and 1989-90, when he had 21 goals and 42 assists. But he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee at the end of the regular season.

Poile said he's convinced the knee is "sound" but "to say he is 100 percent may not be accurate." Iafrate has just three goals and 15 assists so far this season. There also were personal problems, particularly with teammate Gary Leeman.

"It will be nice to go to Washington," Iafrate told the Toronto Sun. "My life was opened up here like a can of worms. I couldn't get forget about {the problems} because they were always right there. It's going to be good to go to a place where my life isn't in such a fishbowl."

"This year he hasn't played like an all-star, and he'd be the first to admit that, but he certainly has the ability," Smith said.

Poile said it may take the rest of the season to "get all the little things back," but that Iafrate shouldn't be viewed as a remedy for all the Capitals' problems.

"Al Iafrate is not the savior," Poile said. "A lot of other guys have to play better."