As he tosses and turns through a winter of sleepless nights, General Manager Max McNab of the Washington Capitals is buffeted by problems old and new.

He was bedeviled tonight by the difficulty of transporting his snowbound team to Atlanta in time for Tuesday night's (WDCA-TV-20) date with the Flames, a situation that at least promised a change of script.

The usual highlights of his insomniac sessions are related to early season home-ice defeats: a 6-4 loss to Los Angeles in which the Kings rallied with four last-period goals; a 3-1 setback that saw St. Louis score twice in the same period, and a 4-3 beating by Colorado in which a final-period goal was decisive.

The results never change. If they did, the Capitals would be batting for a playoff berth, instead of clinging to an outside chance of gaining one.

Of all McNab's nightmares, however, the worst concerns something that has struck the club so often in the past: an injury to a key defenseman.

During Sunday night's 6-6 tie with the New York Rangers, Robert Picard went crashing into the boards and lay still for awhile. Fortunately, he rose and continued to play. If he had been seriously injured, the Capitals could have canceled the rest of the season.

So it should be no surprise that McNab, other facets being equal, will choose a defenseman in the first round of the June amateur draft.

"We're still looking at the best player," McNab said today between phone calls from airlines and travel agents. "But if a forward and defensemen are rated equally, we'll go defense.

"Those guys go at least 30 minutes and contribute so much. You're so vulnerable back there. If you get an injury up front, you can hold the line on short notice. But with a key defenseman hurt, you try to patch up and it doesn't work.

"If we could come up with a right-handed Picard, possibly we would not have to look at our defense for eight years. Our defense is pretty young and pretty talcnted, but the possibility of a defensive injury keeps me awake at night."

Forwards who could score were the No. 1 priority at season's start, but the addition of Dennis Maruk and Greg Polis, plus the blooming of rookie Ryan Walter, have altered the situation so that the first goal Tuesday, in the season's 58th game, will equal last year's entire goal production of 195.

If Tom Rowe is the man who scores that goal, the Capitals will possess five 20-goal scorers, and who would have forecast that without risk of snickers?

In contrast, the Capitals rank next to last in the NHL in goals allowed, with 242 and a 4.25 average. Last year's final figures were 321 and 4.01.

"A lot of goals against were accummulated early when things weren't straightened around," McNab said, with the goaltending an obvious implication.

"Guys shooting blind passes in front are often at fault. Given good help by our forwards' defensive game, our defense compares with a lot of them. They are pretty capable."

A factor in the high priority for a defenseman in the draft is the potential talent both at Hersey and among previously drafted players still participating in college hockey.

The best bets to move up next fall are wingers Eddy Godin and Paul Mulvey. Given good chances to become Capitals in two years are collegiate forwards Don Micheletti of Minnesota and Perry Schnarr of Denver.

McNab feels that a turnover of four or five players will enable the Capitals to meet the upper echelon NHL teams consistently on an even basis.

"During your formative years, you find yourself with guys who are about 80 percent talentwise and you have to keep them up emotionally to bring them near 100 percent," McNab said. "If they play a normal game, it's not good enough.

"We have a number of players now who have to be emotionally geared up beyond their capabilities in order to help us win. That's where consistency comes in. I can't fault the effort here for quite awhile. I can forgive easily when you consider the percentage of talent some guys have. They give everything they have, but you can't do it 20 games in a row. Eventually you come down."

McNab conceded that the emotion factor was a strong possibility for the Capitals' decline a year ago, after that promising 24-victory season.

"Initially, we had quite a few playing on emotion. Boys who didn't want to keep suffering could see that little bit of daylight ahead and worked hard so they didn't have to look back on what had been happening, but eventually you have to come down."

There has been a constant turnover in personnel as the Capitais utilized 80 percent players until they had nothing more to give. There will be more changes. McNab hopes they will produce a change in the standings, too.

Thirty-three members of the Washington Capitals Fan Club were stranded here along with the team, so they just extended the postgame party for 24 hours. Trainer Gump Embro was called upon to rewrap the knee of one intrepid fan who came here straight from a Friday operation.