Washington Capitals fans accustomed to thorny problems are invited to choose among Jean Beliveau, Bobby Clarke or Bryan Trottier to lead the club out of the NHL wilderness next season.

General Manager Max McNab is the man who must make the actual choice, and he has the added difficulty of determining whether any of the top three junior players available in the amateur draft will ever approachthese three stars in actual performance.

The big three, all centers, consist of a truly big one, 6-4 Bob Smith of Ottawa; Bill Derlago of Brando and Ryan Walter of Seattle.

"Smith is a Beliveau type, Derlago is a Trottier type and Walter is a Clarke type," McNab said. "They're all strong enough. Derlago is only 5-10, but he weighs 196. Trottier is 200, but people don't realize it, he's such a mass of muscle."

Beliveau was a key figure on 10 Stanley Cup championship teams in Montreal, and the Capitals' goal is a Stanley Cup, so perhaps Smith should be considered No.1 on the planning board.

As far as Billy Taylor, the Capitals' veteran scout, is concerned, there is no perhaps.

"They'll sell a hell of a lot more tickets if they get Mr. Smith." taylor said. "He creates the same excitement as (Gil) Perreault. He's like him in everything - the way he handles himself, the way he goes from end to end."

Smith, a 207-pounder, recorded 69 goals and 123 assists for 192 points in 61 games this season. His point total smashed by 20 the Ontario Major Junior record set two years ago by the New York Islanders' Mike Kaszycki, and the Ontario league is considered the most defensive minded in Canada.

Like Beliveau, Smith is a superb puck handler, skater and passer, and he is difficult to move from the slot, a factor that helped him socre 30 power-play goals. Shifted to center from left wing this season, he is not especially aggresive and there were some doubts about his ability to measure up to the physical testing common to rookies in the NHL. Those doubts were removed by a recent fight with Dan Lane of Oshawa.

"I'd never seen him lose his temper," Taylor said, "and everybody was taking runs at him. Then the other night this guy (Lane) was giving him a hard time and Smith dropped the gloves and really threw them. That was the only question. Now there aren't any."

Actually, there is one unsettled circumstance before the Capitals select Smith in Montreal June 15. They must finish with the NHL's poorest record to assure that No.1 choice. A couple of Capital victories could shift the balance in favour of Minnesota.

"We'll try to win every game we can and take our chances," McNab said.

Souting the juniors is not an easy matter. Besides sending Red Sullivan, Taylor, Roger Crozier and others to evaluate players, McNab likes to see them himself, preferably in pressure situations.It doesn't always work out.

Walter, a 6-foot, 195-pounder who forechecks in the Clarke mode, played for the Seattle Breakers, who were knocked out of a Western Canada Hockey League playoff berth on the final day of the regular season.

On one of the Capitals' West Coast trips, McNab made a stopover in Seattle to watch Walter, but the youngster missed that contest with the flu. Two weeks ago, McNab finally got a look and was glad he hadn't waited any longer.

The Kingston Canadians had three players rated among the top 20 graduating juniors - wingers Mike Gillis and Tony McKegney and defenseman Behn Wilson. A suspension kept Wilson out of Kingston's opening playoff series and the Canadians were upset by lowly Sault St. Marie, so a lot of scouting plans were junked.

"The way some of these series are going, you have to be careful," said McNab. "The picture can change day to day. Brandon seemed a cinch to get by the first round, but it lost its final game."

Another Brandon defeat would mean a sudden flight west for McNab, so that he could see Derlago in a pressure situation. Derlago was hurt much of this season, but scored 74 goals in his first 46 games. A year ago, he totaled 96 in 72 games.

An added item of interest about Derlago: he and Ron Low, the ex-Capital goalie now with Detroit, play on the same baseball team in the summer and Low calls Derlago "my best friend."

Low recently said, "Billy and I talked about the draft and he's hoping he'll go high. We haven't talked about the possibility of the Capitals drafting him, though, not yet. "There was emphasis on the "yet."

Even if a Capital winning streak should lose the Smith derby, McNab can be sure of picking a good one in the first round. The Capitals need a lot of help, however, and their two second-round selections figure to be important ones. This draft does not have the depth of talent available last year, so McNab must choose with extreme care.

Last night, while the Capitals played the Colorado Rockies in Denver, McNab was in Oshawa, taking another look at right wing Mike Meeker of Peterborough, a man McNab first saw in a University of Wisconsin uniform.

Collegians who celebrate their 20th birthday in 1978 are eligible for the draft, along with Canadian juniors, and McNab, who watched David Silk of NCAA champion Boston University with extra care during last week's playoffs, expects several college players to be selected during the second round.

The World Hockey Association has already pre-selected a few of the best youngsters, but its declining prestige gives it little chance of signing many. Certainly, the Capitals cannot permit any of their top picks to get away. There are too many empty seats at Capital Centre and too many disaffected season ticket holders to allow it, particularly in view of management's emphasis on buildup through the draft rather than trades.

The final test for the prospective drafters will come in the Memorial Cup finals at Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury when the playoff winners from Ontario, Quebec and the West meet to determine Canada's junior champion.