Since the start of training camp, Washington Capitals center Adam Oates has played alongside wingers Ulf Dahlen, Glen Metropolit, Peter Bondra, Steve Konowalchuk, Yogi Svejkovsky, James Black, Miika Elomo, Chris Simon and Jeff Halpern.

The Capitals' hunt for the right set of linemates--and Oates's hunt for his first goal--continues. He and Bondra entered the season as the team's top offensive pair, but Oates has just one assist in six games. Halpern and Simon, who began the season on the fourth line, are the latest duo to join Oates as the coaching staff tries to find the right mix to jump-start Oates's season.

"You just keep giving Adam the opportunity to play," Coach Ron Wilson said. "It's just a matter of time. He's got to keep plugging away and doing the things he knows make him a success. . . .

"If one or two guys are struggling offensively it's a concern, because you'd like them to score. But if they're not playing poorly and they're doing the job defensively, I've got no problem with that.

"And in fairness to Adam, I've been mixing him around with different people and we've got to get somebody in there on his left wing who can complement him and carry the puck and assert himself."

With Simon on the left side, Oates will be protected by an enforcer who can chip in offensively. Halpern is a hustling, speedy rookie who isn't afraid to carry the puck and set up his linemates. A few months ago, it seemed unlikely the trio would be paired together, but the Capitals (2-3-1) are willing to try just about anything as they open a four-game road trip tonight against the Phoenix Coyotes.

Oates is one of the premier passers in the game, and only the retired Wayne Gretzky has more assists than he does in the 1990s. Oates has led Washington in assists all three seasons here, and finished strong last season with 40 points in 38 games after returning from a groin injury. Oates has yet to rediscover that form this season, and doing so on the road could be vital to the team's success.

"I'd like to get rid of the goose egg on goals," Oates said. "I'm not really worried about goals, so to speak, but still, no one wants the goose egg. Maybe I'll relax a little more when I get that first one."

The Capitals want Oates to do much more than score and set up goals. He is counted upon to win key faceoffs. He also logs significant minutes on the penalty kill--often triggering short-handed scoring chances--and evaluates himself on his overall play, not just points. All the line swapping has not been a factor in his slow start, Oates said.

"The team is still mixing lines and, as a team, trying to find chemistry," Oates said. "But I think as an individual you have to worry about yourself and try to get in a groove and play well and do your own job first, and then create a line after that.

"You only have 12 or 13 forwards, so you have to find chemistry with what we've got. [Konowalchuk] has played great with the kids, but also played well with [Andrei Nikolishin] and Bonzai. So what do you do? You don't want to sacrifice one for the other, so Wilson has to just juggle it around and find a good overall combo."

This season is an important one for Oates. His contract carries a team option for next season, and he could become available at the trade deadline, depending on his performance, and that of the team. At last year's trading deadline, skilled veterans were at a premium, and several NHL teams are monitoring Oates. Getting that first goal might be the perfect catalyst for his season, and his future.

Capitals Notes: Left wing Jeff Toms was sent down to Portland. . . . Center Michal Pivonka has three points in five games with Kansas City (IHL). The Capitals hope he plays well enough to interest a team in trading for him. . . . Michal Sivek, selected 29th overall last June, was among league leaders with eight goals and 16 points in his first 10 Western Hockey League Games. Kris Beech, taken seventh overall, got off to a slow start on a loaded Calgary team and had 12 points in his first 11 games.