When the Washington Capitals opened training camp last week, forward Alexandre Volchkov's incredible talent burst forth in flashes, almost as if he were taunting the organization that has watched the prospect waste his first two seasons of professional hockey. For a week the Capitals' brass watched the bullish forward dominate scrimmages, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

Was Volchkov, the fourth player selected in the 1996 draft, teasing them again with a glimpse of what he could accomplish? Was it another wasted moment of brilliance from a player who seemed to go out of his way to falter the last two years? Did the 21-year-old finally start to mature over the summer? Could he keep it up?

The Caps are set to begin the preseason tonight against Philadelphia, and Volchkov has been the early surprise of camp. He will be among the players most closely watched during the seven exhibition games and is on a short list of forwards fighting for the final two spots on the NHL roster. Many questions remain unanswered about the enigmatic youngster, but the Caps do know this: Volchkov could erase two lost years with one stellar September.

"The guy has as much skill as any player in the game," General Manager George McPhee said. "He's a very, very talented player and when he focuses he can dominate on the ice. There are 192 days in a season and if he wants to work every one of those 192 days like he's worked in this week here, he could be a very good player in this league. If he continues what he's doing he'll be in the NHL, and if he doesn't then he'll be in the minors."

By all accounts, the Russian should be ready for the big time by now. He has the ability to be a dominating offensive force. He can be devastatingly creative, as he has been in the scrimmages, making goalies and defensemen look silly. He has all the tools -- skating, stickhandling, deadly shot, great size (6 feet 2, 209 pounds) and strength.

Although there was talk before the 1996 draft that Volchkov had difficulty getting along with coaches and teammates, the potential to land a franchise player was too great for the Capitals to resist. The risk did not pay off: After pumping in 66 goals in 103 junior hockey games, Volchkov has produced six goals in 86 games in the minors.

Many scouts have soured on him, and the Caps entered camp with low expectations. He wasn't written off, but wasn't skating with the NHL players, either.

"He was an immature kid when he first came in as a high pick," McPhee said. "He probably expected to step right into the lineup, and that didn't happen. Some European kids get put in the minors and don't perform very well, then you put them in the NHL and they show what they can do. A lot of the people he played with and against at the junior level have passed him by, and that was probably difficult for him.

"But this is a chance now for him to take all this back with a good camp. He's got a shot. Everybody comes in with a clean slate, and if you were coming in off the street watching this guy you'd say he's the best player in camp. That's the way you have to approach it."

Volchkov won't play in tonight's game in Philadelphia, but will be in the lineup when the Caps host the Flyers Friday at MCI Center. He's battling Jeff Halpern, Jeff Toms, Matt Herr and Glen Metropolit for the final spots among the 14 forwards. Jamie Huscroft, Rob Zettler, Alexei Tezikov and Nolan Baumgartner are battling to be the team's seventh defenseman. Expect these players to be in the lineup for just about all seven preseason games.

Coach Ron Wilson said he'll likely use Volchkov with center Jan Bulis, another wildly talented European. Bulis and Volchkov played together for the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League and the Capitals hope some of Bulis's personality and work ethic rub off on his line mate.

Some in the organization wonder if Volchkov's resurgence is related to the fact he's in the last year of his contract and, without a big year, he will have no leverage in his next negotiations. Others believe that Volchkov is playing better because his father has been at Piney Orchard for every practice. Whatever the reason, the Caps just hope it continues. If they decide renting a house for Volchkov's parents in the city where he plays will aid his development, it just might happen. Anything to keep the good vibes flowing.

"Some people mature physically at 13, but mentally don't grow up until they're 25," Wilson said. "And I think that might be Volchie's case. We're seeing much better signs of maturity here in terms of working hard through a practice and not just when he has the puck. Maybe this is when the Volchkov hibernation ends and he comes to life."