The Washington Capitals plan to make defenseman Robert Picard their No. 1 selection this morning in the National Hockey League's amateur draft.

Picard, 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, was here yesterday and apparently the only thing that would make the Capitals' expenditure for air fare and accommodations a waste would be a last-minute deal involving Detroit or Colorado, the two teams that pick before Washington.

Such a trade with player-rich Montreal, would not be surprising, since Detroit general manager Ted Lindsay has been sounding off about his willingness to make a swap. As of last night, however, Lindsay was holding out for a three-player package that would include front-line center Doug Risebrough. Detroit needs both centers and defensemen desperately. If Montreal is lacking super depth anywhere, it is at center.

Players born in 1957, regardless of nationally or status, are eligible to be selected in the draft. Some American college players and European juniors are expected to go high, as well as current World Hockey Association players Mark Napier, John Tonelli and Gord Roberts. All three were signed by th WHA as underage juniors.

The bulk of the first-round draftees, however, figures to come from the three Canadian junior leagues.

Barring a trade, Detroit is likely to choose center Dale McCourt of St. Catharines, voted junior player of the year after a 60-goal, 79-assist season.

McCourt, 5-10 and 180 pounds, was at his home in Falconbridge, Ontario, yesterday and insisted that nothing had been finalized.

"I'm not settled, but I'm not worried about it," McCourt said. "I imagine I'm going to go pretty high. But I've let my lawyer handle it. He talked to everybody. I'd just like to find out what city I'll be playing in, and I want to go as high as I can."

The draft was postponed from May 26, because of the uncertainty of the NHL's makeup next season. Additionally, there is hestitancy among some clubs to pay big bonuses in case a merger with the WHA occurs and erases competitive bidding for youngsters.

"They always need young players," McCourt said. "I won't go poor."

Colorado is counting on Barry Beck, a 6-2, 215-pound defenseman, to revive its woeful back line. Beck was the most valuable player in the Memorial Cup, the Canadian junior championship won by his New Westminster Bruins.

Although he ranks third on most scouting lists, Picard is considered close to the top two. He totaled 32 goals, 60 assists and 267 penalty minutes with the Montreal Juniors.

Picard's team played its home games in the Forum, showplace of the Stanley Cup champion Canadiens, and that club is aware of his multiple talents. If the Canadiens should obtain Picard through a late trade, Washington possibly would go for left wing Jere Gillis of Sherbrooke rather than McCourt, since the Capitals' principal strength is at center.

The Capitals were showing more concern about their second-round pick, No. 21 overall, than about Picard and companions.

"We know our first draft will be a good one," said general manager Max McNab. "What we have to do to really improve is to get something out of that No. 21. We hope some of the set teams will go for the WHA players and leave us looking at No. 18."

Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke was a second-round selection and NHL general managers never give up hope of unearthing another Clarke after the so-called stars have been distributed.

Montreal, Toronto and the New York Rangers will have two first-round selections today, while Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Atlanta, because of previous deals, have none.