The Washington Capitals took a step toward improving their offense yesterday as they signed free agent Phil Housley, the NHL's No. 4 all-time goal scorer among defensemen.

Housley's contract is for three years, and his agent said it's worth at least $2.5 million a year, the highest single-season total in Capitals history; if he meets certain clauses, the total could be higher.

Since Housley is an unrestricted free agent, the Capitals will not have to compensate his previous team, the New Jersey Devils. Housley, 32, is a six-time all-star who had 17 goals and 51 assists last season for the Devils and the Calgary Flames, who traded him to New Jersey in February.

He said he considered signing with several teams, but "the most important thing to me was the fact that the other teams weren't going in the same direction as the Capitals. Right now, they have the goaltender {Vezina Trophy winner Jim Carey} and the defense that can carry a team through the low-scoring games."

Coach Jim Schoenfeld is certain that Housley will help the Capitals improve offensively, particularly on the power play. Last season, they averaged 2.85 goals per game -- worst among the eight Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs.

"He's coming into the best part of his career," Schoenfeld said of Housley, a 14-year pro. "He's a magnificent skater, a dangerous hockey player, and he makes everybody on the ice more effective because of his playmaking ability."

Although Housley has a reputation for being as much a liability on defense as he is an asset on offense, he said helping the Capitals defensively is "probably going to be the easiest part." He added that he is used to playing for teams with defense-first philosophies, having played for New Jersey last season.

Adding Housley moves General Manager David Poile closer to his stated offseason goal of improving the offense. However, Poile said the job isn't complete.

Poile and Schoenfeld reiterated that they want to acquire a dominant, goal-scoring forward. And Poile said Housley's signing gives the Capitals a better chance to make a trade for such a player.

"We have draft choices, we have young players, we have an excess on defense," Poile said. The Capitals now have nine NHL-caliber defensemen on their roster, and they generally have six in uniform for each game.

Housley had his best season with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93, when he had 18 goals and 79 assists.

In 1983-84 with Buffalo, he scored 31 goals, becoming one of seven defensemen in league history to score more than 30 goals in a season.

Among defensemen, his 274 career goals rank him behind only Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque and Denis Potvin.

His 950 career points make him the NHL's sixth all-time leading scorer among defensemen, trailing Coffey, Bourque, Larry Murphy and Hall of Famers Potvin and Larry Robinson.

Housley began his career with Buffalo in 1982, going directly from South St. Paul (Minn.) High School and becoming the youngest defenseman in NHL history at 18 years old. He has since played for Winnipeg, St. Louis, Calgary and New Jersey. Capitals Notes: The Capitals announced their schedule for the upcoming season yesterday. The season will be Washington's last at USAir Arena, and the team will open the season there against the Chicago Blackhawks Oct. 5.

The Capitals have two five-game road trips -- one in December and one in February -- and two four-game homestands, the first in January and the second running from late February through early March.

The Capitals' first game against Pittsburgh, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs, is Oct. 19 at Pittsburgh, and the Penguins' first trip to USAir Arena will be Nov. 1. Also, the Capitals host Wayne Gretzky and his new team, the New York Rangers, three times. The first game is Nov. 9. CAPTION: OFFENSE, DEFENSE MOST CAREER GOALS, POINTS BY A DEFENSEMAN Name

Yrs. Goals


Yrs. Points x-Paul Coffey 16


x-Paul Coffey 16

1,410 x-Ray Bourque 17


x-Ray Bourque 17

1,313 Denis Potvin 15


Denis Potvin 15

1,052 x-Phil Housley 14


x-Larry Murphy 16

1,006 Bobby Orr



Larry Robinson 20


x-Phil Housley 14

950 x -- active CAPTION: Phil Housley, who had 17 goals and 51 assists last season, gets a good look at his new colors after signing a deal with the Capitals.