The Washington Capitals surprised the hockey world yesterday by negotiating a deal that enabled them to draft center Bobby Carpenter of Peabody, Mass., the 17-year-old high school senior most experts feel is destined to be the greatest American player in National Hockey League history.

Carpenter, who expected to be selected by the Hartford Whalers, was as stunned as everyone else, but he quickly appeared at his home in a Capitals golf shirt and told a Capital Centre gathering by telephone that he was "glad to be there (in Washington)."

Now the big question concerning Carpenter's future is whether he will attend Providence College or report directly to the Capitals in September. The advice of his father will be a key factor, as will be the monetary offer by Washington.

"I don't know if it (the money) is going to be the deciding factor," Carpenter said, "but it's going to help. Dad and I are both undecided. We'll have to sit down after things have calmed down and see what's the best thing.

"I was shocked to find out Washington picked me. I had no idea till this morning when my father called from Montreal. All the papers around here said Hartford would pick me. But it didn't matter where I went. I just want to play in the best place for me, where I'll do my best."

Washington had the fifth selection, while Hartford was scheduled to pick fourth. That did not stop Washington General Manager Max McNab. He arranged a flip-flop of choices with No. 3 Colorado.In exchange for that courtesy, McNab gave the Rockies his second-round choice and took Colorado's third-round pick.

"This was not a spur of the moment thing," McNab said. "We've followed this boy for two years and we had him rated the No. 1 prospect. In that case, you do everything you can to get him. We're excited and happy, but it's unfortunate for Hartford not to get him. It's a calamity there."

In most years, the top draftees are Canadians unknown to the American public. Carpenter, however, is more familiar to Americans than most of the Olympic gold medalists. He has been the subject of several television shows, as well as a Sports Illustrated cover boy, and both that magazine and the Boston Globe have headlined him as "The Can't-Miss Kid."

A dazzling skater and stickhandler who learned the game from his father on their floodlit backyard rink, Carpenter led St. John's Prep of Danvers, Mass., to the state title as a sophomore and to the regional final as a junior. He scored 54 points his sophomore year and 65 the following season, before dropping to 38 this year as opponents double and triple-teamed him.

These figures were posted in seasons ranging from 18 to 24 games and it was the absence of the tough competition found in Canadian junior leagues that prompted some teams to rate him lower than the Capitals did.

Winnipeg, drafting first yesterday, took the man everybody else listed as No. 1, center Dale Hawerchuk of Cornwall, the Canadian junior champion. Los Angeles then surprised with its selection of Ottawa center Doug Smith, but that produced a mere ripple compared to the stir created in the Montreal Forum when Colorado announced that it had dealt its pick to Washington, which quickly chose Carpenter.

The Rockies, who wanted defenseman Joe Cirella of Oshawa, got both their man and the benefit of that second-round Washington selection as Hartford, after calling time, chose center Ron Francis of Sault Ste. Marie.

"Colorado was afraid to lose their guy to Hartford, so we had to give them something," McNab said.

But the Capitals feel they came away looking good on the trade, as defenseman Eric Calder of Cornwall, rated high by Washington, was still around when it came time to exercise the third choice obtained from Colorado.

Although McNab thinks Carpenter is capable of moving directly into the NHL, there is a special advantage to his being an American. Where underage Canadian selections must play for the parent team or be returned to junior hockey, Carpenter could be assigned to Washington's Hershey farm.

"He's a capable man," McNab said. "We know it's a giant step, but we'd like to work him into our organization. The better competition he gets into, the sooner he'll be ready for the NHL.

"We'll be holding negotiations during the summer. He's 6 foot and 185 pounds now and with three or four months to training camp, he'll be bigger than that. There is no question about his future or his size. Everybody thinks he'll be the best American who ever played the sport and if he's going to represent the United States in hockey, I don't think he should be in any city except the capital city."

McNab had examined every possible outlet for immediate help, utilizing his draft position, but discovered he could get nothing better than a "role player," one that would fill a hole for the next couple of years. Forced to gamble on an untried youngster, he then persevered to get the one who might best help the sputtering Washington franchise.

There are thousands of New Englanders with hockey backgrounds and inclinations in the Washington area, but many of them visit Capital Centre only when the Boston Bruins are playing. Should Carpenter click, it could be the key to filling those thousands of empty seats.

For Washington's purposes, Carpenter is a better choice than even Hawerchuk. It is possible he may prove to be a better player down the road, too. In the World Junior Championships in Munich, Carpenter scored three goals and held Hawerchuk scoreless as the United States upset Canada, 7-3.

Only one American ever had been drafted in the first round before -- Mike Ramsey, Buffalo's first-round pick and the 11th choice in 1979. The Sabres created more history yesterday when, picking 17th, they made Czechoslovakian wing Jiri Dudacek the first European to be selected in the first round. Two picks later, Montreal took Swedish wing Jan Ingman.

Minnesota used two of its five second-round selections to draft Minnesota high school boys, defenseman Tom Hirsch and winger David Preuss. mIn the fourth round, the Capitals chose defenseman Tony Kellin, who is winding up his junior year at Grand Rapids (Minn.) High School.