The Washington Capitals reluctantly abstained from yesterday's NHL waiver draft, returned left wing Torrie Robertson to his junior club in Victoria, B.C., and worked far into the night preparing a case they hoped would restore left wing Bob Kelly's eligibility for the opener here Friday against Winnepeg.

Brian O'Neill, executive vice president of the NHL and the man who handles player discipline, will be in Washington today to rule on the Capitals' appeal of an automatic three-game suspension against Kelly for being first man to leave the bench to join a fight during last week's exhibition with Philadelphia.

Boston's John Wensink and Rick Smith, the only two unprotected players in whom the Capitals expressed interest, were plucked away on the two selections preceding the Capitals' in the annual draft conducted by conference phone call among the 21 NHL teams. Wensink, a left wing, went to Quebec and Smith, a defenseman, to Detroit.

"The guys we gave the most consideration to were Wensink and Rick smith," said Washington General Manager Max McNab. "Otherwise, there wasn't that much that could bump somebody without withholding playing time from our younger prospects."

Colorado, choosing first, took right wing Yvon Vautour, a New York Islander farmhand. Winnipeg then cast before Quebec and Detroit provided their unwelcome news. The only other players to change teams were right wing Curt Brackenbury, taken from Quebec by Edmonton, and defenseman Colin Campbell, picked by Vancouver after Edmonton dropped him to protect Brackenbury.

Before the draft began, Quebec reclaimed right wing Daniel Geoffrion, a former WHA Nordique left unprotected by Montreal. The Canadiens, then coached by Geoffrion's father, Bernie, had taken Geoffrion as part of the merger a year ago.

Robertson, a third-round entry draft choice who turned 19 in August, was impressive in five exhibition games, scoring two goals and using his 188 pounds to advantage. As an underage choice, he had to be either kept here or sent back to his junior club.

Robertson can be recalled any time after Nov. 1.

"Torrie was our fourth-line left wing and on nights we went with six defensemen he wouldn't have played that much," McNab said. "For a 19-year-old, the best thing for him is to go back. We will have no qualms about bringing him in on an emergency recall."

The Capitals therefore will start the season Friday with a 19-man squad that includes six defensemen and two spare forwards. Although the Capitals now have seven defenders, no decision has been made on which one will be farmed to Hershey, since the Bears do not play until Saturday. If Yvon Labre's knee holds up in the opener, it can be presumed Howard Walker will get the pink slip.

Should Kelly's suspension be enforced, a left wing will be recalled immediately from Hershey. McNab's said Gary Rissling, Harvie Pocza, Greg Polis and Antero Lehtonen all are candidates. Regardless, one figures to be coming up soon, because it is Green's desire to use four lines and five defensemen against most opponents, using six defensemen only against strong forechecking clubs.

To facilitate the building of a defense for Kelly, the Capitals dispatched Lou Corletto, public relations director, to Philadelphia yesterday to obtain both a television tape and a radio tape of Friday's game.

It is Washington's contention that Flyer Gary Morrison should have been fingered as the culprit in the bench-clearing brawl, rather than Kelly, and McNab hopes the tapes will convince O'Neill.

Defenseman Leif Svensson, unclaimed in the waiver draft, will probably return to his old Swedish club, Djurgarden, where he will also be able to continue his studies toward a graduate degree. If the transfer is effected, he would still be eligible for recall should Washington be hit by injuries.

Goaltender Gary Inness, also bypassed in the draft, will remain at Hershey, with his future in abeyance pending Dave Parro's recovery from a shoulder separation suffered in a summer softball game.

Errol Rausse, another contender for Robertson's left wing berth, skated yesterday and said his knee, which underwent surgery in May, felt "pretty good."