The Washington Capitals' top draft pick, Bobby Carpenter, 18, appears to be walking a thin line as he attempts to negotiate a professional contract with the National Hockey League team while safeguarding his NCAA eligibility, which he may wish to use at Providence College.

Carpenter was the star center of the St. John's Preparatory School hockey team last winter in Danvers, Mass., and became the first U.S. player to be taken in the first round of an NHL draft. Since spring, when he became the Capitals' property, Carpenter has been unable to decided whether to sign with Washington or to accept a college scholarship this fall. If Carpenter opts for college, the Capitals will retain the rights to him for five years.

NCAA rules forbid a student athlete to hire an agent to negotiate a professional sports contract, but allow the player to have an attorney clarify the offer.

Earlier this week Carpenter, accompanied by his father and Boston attorney Jack Herlihy, met with the Capitals' owner Abe Pollin, General Manager Max McNab, counsel Peter O'Malley and Coach Gary Green. The seven met for about four hours in the Capital Centre board room. For about one hour, while father and son went to dinner with Green, Herlihy remained in a meeting with members of the Capitals' organization.

Herlihy, who was introduced as the Carpenter family lawyer, said yesterday he was retained by the family this summer to advise them on Bobby Carpenter's contract offer. Herlihy also is the attorney for former Boston Bruins star Bobby Orr, and in that capacity helped Orr negotiate many contracts.

"I've had a great deal of experience with torts contracts," Herlihy said yesterday. "I happen to represent Bobby Orr, the hockey player, so I guess they (the Carpenters) thought that if I was good enough for Bobby Orr I was good enough for them."

Herlihy said he was aware of the restraints placed on him by NCAA rules and insisted he did not violate them during the meeting.

"I am really just advising him (Carpenter) as a family lawyer," Herlihy said.

Lou Lamariello, Providence College hockey coach, acknowledged that rumors that Carpenter was violating NCAA rules were circulating in the Boston area. But Lamariello said he had discussed the eligibility problem with the Carpenters before they entered into negotiation with the Capitals.

"There's no way he's jeopardizing his eligibility, no way he would take this chance," Lamariello said.

NCAA enforcement representative Dave Didion said it is possible Herlihy's presence at the meeting could violate association rules.

"The young man can seek advice from a lawyer, but if the lawyer represents him in negotiations, the young man is violating NCAA rules," Didion said. "If the lawyer actually met with the pro organization I'm afraid he would be considered in violation."

Didion added that if Herlihy confined his services to clarifying the contract offer, he probably would be within NCAA rules.

If a complaint is filed with the NCAA, an enforcement representative questions the parties involved, then sets up a hearing before the committee on infractions. If the committee finds the player has violated the rules, he becomes ineligible to compete at an NCAA school in the sport in question.

Asked if a complaint had been lodged against Carpenter, Didion said, "I can't confirm or deny the existence of an infraction report."

The Capitals' McNab said all parties to this week's meeting were "well aware of that situation" with the NCAA rules. McNab said that during the Carpenters' absence from the meeting room, the discussion was about generalities.

"We talked about every aspect of our organization right down to the locker rooms and where he (Carpenter) would be living," McNab said. "He (Herlihy) was just seeking knowledge."