They are tall, skinny teenagers, but their potential is boundless. They are playing against NHL players for the first time, a mere week into their first training camp with the Washington Capitals, but are being watched as closely as any of the 70-odd players present.

They are the Capitals' 1999 draft class, led by five players taken in the first 37 picks -- a group that might one day be recognized as the best in team history.

Simply put, they are the future of the organization.

Centers Krys Beech (seventh overall), Michal Sivek (29th), and Charlie Stephens (31st), and defensemen Ross Lupaschuk (34th) and Nolan Yonkman (37th) will likely play their first game Friday night when the Capitals play Philadelphia in their only preseason appearance at MCI Center.

They will be showcased this week before returning to their junior teams to continue their development. By this time next season, management expects at least two of the five to be competing for jobs in the NHL, though the oldest of the group will be just 19.

For an organization obsessed with getting younger, faster and stronger, the timing of their arrival could not be better.

"We knew we had to have a big draft," General Manager George McPhee said. "One of our primary concerns as an organization was that the team is getting older and there wasn't much in the tank to bring in.

"So we set out to acquire a lot of high picks in the draft. Our scouts thought it was a deep draft, and we were fortunate to accomplish our goal and it looks like we picked the right players.

"Our top five picks are all big men who can skate, are really skilled and have good speed. If you want to have a good team you have to draft well all the time, and this was the first draft we really felt like our staff was complete and we had something to work with in the draft."

This was just the Capitals' second draft under McPhee's direction, and the first in which they had a top 40 pick.

If their top picks pan out, they may have sped up a retooling process by several years. Big, fleet centers are just about the most prized commodity in the NHL these days. It's nearly impossible to project how teens will develop as people and as players, but if they bulk up, continue to flourish in junior hockey and play with hunger, McPhee figures Beech (6 feet 2) and Sivek (6-3) will have a legitimate shot to make the team next year.

Coach Ron Wilson has been impressed with the draft class since watching them at the Capitals' rookie camp in July. He sees flashes of brilliance in small things they do.

Beech, who will follow a special diet and strength program this season, has the look of a future top-notch playmaker (picture Adam Oates on stilts); Sivek has a heavy shot and strong drive to the net. But the coach knows better than to rush any of the players. He's willing to wait, but expects a hefty payoff down the line.

"From what I've seen in terms of size and speed, our scouting staff did a great job finding these kids," Wilson said. "That's what we thought we had to address as an organization.

"We've answered some of our glaring needs. Unfortunately, [this year] the fans won't see what lies in store for the Caps except for maybe Friday if they come to the game.

"But it's really exciting to know what's there."

McPhee said 15 teams called the Capitals on draft day hoping to pry away one or more of their four second-round picks.

The Capitals thought about packaging a couple of their second-round selections for another first-round pick. But Washington liked Beech all along and its scouts felt there would be quality players available throughout the first 40 picks.

When Sivek was still on the board with the first pick of the second round, there was no debate which player they'd select. Everyone was ecstatic.

A few teams took chances on long shots, prompting Sivek's fall, and Ross Mahoney, the Capitals' director of amateur scouting, figures some teams shied away because the young Czech had modest numbers last season (12 points in 34 Czech League games).

However, Sivek dominated an international tournament as a 16-year-old, and at least one other NHL scouting director feels he could be the steal of the draft.

"I think before last season started a lot of teams probably had Michal a lot higher than where we ended up getting him," Mahoney said. "And he'll prove them wrong, which is great. I know he will. I know the type of person he is and I'm sure his pride is hurt because he didn't go in the first round.

"He's going to show them he should have been taken early in the draft."

Stephens isn't quite as polished as his fellow centers, but he's even bigger (6-4, 225 pounds) and posted a solid 26 goals and 58 points in 68 games in the Ontario Hockey League last season. The defensemen, Lupaschuk and Yonkman, are at least three years away.

Defense is a much tougher position to play -- mobility is essential, instincts must be honed and it takes years to develop NHL decision-making skills. The Capitals are much deeper on the blue line than up front, anyway.

All five youngsters can't wait for the future. They realize what's expected of them and what they could accomplish. They are the future, and they know it.

"I think we sense the expectations," Beech said. "It's a long ways off, and it will take lots of hard work, but I think we all have the tools and the size.

"I think it's just going to be a matter of time and hard work."