The National Hockey League entry draft, to be conducted Wednesday in Montreal, could best be described as Dale Hawerchuk and the 736 dwarfs.

Hawerchuck, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound center, scored 183 points last season, although frequently double- and even triple-teamed. Only 18, he twice has led the Cornwall Royals to the Memorial Cup, Canada's junior hockey championship.

Barring a last-minute trade, Hawerchuk will be toiling next fall for the Winnipeg Jets, who thus far have refused countless offers for their No. 1 draft selection.

Although the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau has a list of 737 eligible players, only Hawerchuk is a certainty to move directly into the league. The other have-not clubs, including Washington, are faced with a guessing game, trying to figure which of the available youngsters is likely to mature into stardom a year or more down the road.

This was the year when the draft menu was to have been adorned with the names of Wayne Gretzky, Denis Savard, Larry Murphy, Doug Wickenheiser, Wayne Babych and Paul Coffey. Instead, the underage draft, forced on the NHL two years ago by legal opinions, has skimmed the cream. Instead of tested 20-year-olds, the draft crop consists largely of untried kids of 18.

"You'd sure have known going in you'd get a player if you had that group to pick from," said Washington General Manager Max McNab. "We'll get a player, but the delivery date is postponed to a degree."

Because of the absence of superior talent, McNab for the first time was willing to listen to offers for his first-round selection. He found them few and unattractive.

"The market for a first round is not quite what it's been in the past," McNab said. "We would only give it up for a solid, proven National Leaguer. But every club is looking at the same thing. Only a few draft eligibles would help right away and nobody is overladen with depth.

"We've talked to a few clubs, even on the basis of a flip-flop of draft picks, but we're not close to anything.

"You never know, though. It's amazing how the value of a player jumps up at 11 o'clock the night before the draft, or even on the floor that day."

The Capitals will choose fifth and they cannot be certain of their first man because Los Angeles, which will draft second, and Colorado, the No. 3 selector, are waffling on their choices. Hartford, No. 4, will grab Robbie Carpenter, the Sports Illustrated cover boy from Massachusetts, unless the Kings or Rockies pick him earlier.

The logical name for McNab to announce is Jim Benning, a defenseman for Portland of the Western League. Benning amassed 28 goals and 111 assists, a remarkable total for an 18-year-old. He is a left-handed shot and would fill two of the Capitals' three major deficiencies.

Washington needs a left wing who can score, a defenseman who can move the puck and a left-point man on the power play. The Capitals have two candidates for the left wing role, Swede Roland Stoltz and Torrie Robertson, a 1980 draftee. As the accompanying list of the top 75 eligible North Americans indicates, there are no quality left wings available, anyway, with centers and defensemen dominant.

Whether Benning will survive until the fifth choice is questionable. The Rockies have mentioned his name, but they are negotiating with two European defensemen and, should they succeed there, they probably would go for a center. Then there is the matter of how soon Benning could make it to the NHL.

"The one people are talking most about is young Benning," McNab said. "He has had great success in his first year in every division -- bantam, midget and junior. But the statistics are a little bit deceiving. He has been playing in a division with three horrendous teams -- Seattle, Spokane and New Westminster -- and he scored a lot of his points against them."

Other leading candidates to go early are defensemen Garth Butcher of Regina, Randy Moller of Lethbridge and Joe Cirella of Oshawa; centers Ron Francis of Sault Ste. Marie and Doug Smith of Ottawa; right wings Tony Tanti of Oshawa and Mark Hunter of Brantford, and goalie Grant Fuhr of Victoria, who seems destined to become the NHL's first black goaltender.

"There are some good kids who are developing late and could be better than those who are top-rated," said Buffalo General Manager-Coach Scotty Bowman. "That's where the underage draft really hurts the weaker teams. They have to go for immediate help, where the better teams can afford to wait on a kid."

"There may be even less than five who can step right in now," said Philadelphia General Manager Keith Allen. "There are good kids, but almost all of them would probably be far down the road."

McNab agrees with both evaluations, but he does point out one benefit of drafting and signing a youngster at 18.

"The advantage of the underage draft, particularly with kids like Benning and Ron Francis, is that we have the summer to put them on a program and build up their strength," McNab said. "We're willing to pay for their summer spa. In the past, too many kids at 20 have never so much as lifted a weight."

Although McNab declines to make any derogatory comments about Darren Veitch, last year's No. 1 pick, it was obviously in the strength department that Veitch was found wanting.

In past years, most of the draft picks came from Canada's major junior leagues. It was not until 1979, when Buffalo selected American Mike Ramsey, that anyone other than a Canadian was chosen in the first round.

Now Carpenter figures to go in the top four and it would be no surprise to see a European high on the list. Additionally, there are Canadians playing Tier Two hockey, a step below the major juniors, that bear watching. Probably the best of that lot is defenseman Jimmy Patrick, the most valuable player as his Prince Albert team won the Centennial Cup.

"It's a funny draft situation now," McNab said. "Before, the major juniors represented 80 percent of the draft. But now, Tier Two, the U.S. colleges, U.S. high schools and the Europeans are hitting about 40 percent and it's goint to be 50-50."

Tier Two hockey has become more popular because it enables youngsters to stay at home, as well as to retain their eligibility for possible college scholarships.

There will be 10 rounds, with 210 players to be selected. The Capitals do not have a third-round selection, but they have two picks in the fifth round. In most cases beyond No. 1, Washington will be selected on the basis of strength.

"There are a lot of big, strong guys who will be available in the second round," McNab said. "There is no question, considering our position in the Patrick Division, that physical strength is very important to us. When you're looking down the throat of a Thursday in Philly, a Saturday on the Island and a Sunday against the Rangers three or four times a year, you've got to be strong.