In 1974, the last year the National Hockey League permitted an amateur draft reaching down to 18-year-olds, the Washington Capitals chose Mike Marson when Bryan Trottier was still available. It was the kind of error that has helped keep the team out of the playoffs six years in a row.

The Capitals' revamped scouting staff, led by Jack Button, has graded talent in every known area over the last nine months, but no one can determine for sure how a 20-year-old junior all-star will perform in the NHL, not to mention an 18-year-old kid who stayed home to play Tier Two hockey while finishing high school.

"We recognize the dangers of this draft to us," said General Manager Max McNab. "We'd like to get a good, solid player who can help us now. But one of the younger players two years down the road might prove better. We have to do what is best for us now, but if, when it comes our turn to pick, the figures are overwhelming in favor of an 18-year-old, we'll take a serious look at a waiting period."

As the team with the fifth-worst record last season, the Capitals will exercise the fifth selection in Wednesday's draft. It is their weakest position in the drafting order since 1975, when they dealt their No. 1 pick to Philadelphia for Bill Clement and were spectators until the 18th selection.

Nevertheless, the Capitals should come up with a player who could move right into the NHL. There seem to be at least a half-dozen sure pro stars available.

It is fairly general consensus that the first three to go will be center Doug Wickenheiser of Regina, Saskatchewan defenseman Wayne Babych of Portland, Ore., and defenseman Larry Murphy of Peterborough, Ontario. Center Denis Savard of Montreal also could go high, despite his diminutive measurements: 5 foot 9, 157 pounds.

But when Washington's turn rolls around, it seems likely McNab will be calling the name of either Darren Veitch or Fred Arthur. Both are defensemen, but they are alike in no other respect, and which one comes here could determine the characteristics of the team for years to come.

Veitch, a 5-11, 18-pound right-hand shot, is an offensive-minded 20-year-old who helped Regina reach the Memorial Cup final with regular-season statistics of 29 goals, 93 assists and playoff figures of 13 goals, 18 assists.

Arthur, who shoots left, stands 6-4 and weighs 204. He scored just five goals, but contributed 70 assists and was a key factor in Cornwall's Memorial Cup championship, although bypassed for Murphy and Veitch in the all-star voting.

The Capitals need big, high-scoring wingers even more than defensemen, but that species seem extinct. The best of the lot is Regina's Mike Blaisdell, a 6-1, 196-pounder who scored 71 goals after departing the University of Wisconsin to increase his media exposure.

An enigma for the scouts is winger Jim Fox of Ottawa, who led the Ontario Hockey Association in scoring with 166 points despite missing 18 games with an injury. Fox figured at midseason to be challenging Wickenheiser for No. 1 draft status, but he was a disappointment in the playoffs, with questions about both size (5-8, 169) and attitude.

"This is basically a center ice-defense draft, by the look of things," McNab said. "Our defense can still be shored up if the proper man is available. There are some excellent underage wingman, which of course complicates our job."

Anyone could choose a blue chipper in that first round, but the selections during the rest of the 10-round draft will determine the Capitals' destiny.

The depth of this draft, embracing players who turn 18 before Sept. 15, not only makes far more players than usual available but promises to dilute the talent pool for the next few years. So it is imperative to make wise moves this time; the second chance will be a hazardous one.

"The NHL teams that have the best luck in this year's draft will come up with the equivalent of three to five players who would be considered first-round picks in two or three years," McNab said.

The Capitals retain all their picks except for one, in the fourth round, which they surrendered to the New York Islanders in the Gord Lane-Mike Kaszycki deal.