Deciding that immediate results were preferable to a gamble on the future, the Washington Capitals traded their first-round choice in yesterday's National Hockey League amateur draft for center Dave Christian of the Winnipeg Jets.

This year's draft had fewer top-rated players than in recent years, and the early choices contained few surprises. Brian Lawton, a center from Mount St. Charles High School in Woonsocket, R.I., was the first player taken. Lawton, drafted by the Minnesota North Stars, became the only U.S.-born player ever chosen first overall in the draft.

David Poile, the Capitals' general manager, said he did not believe the players available to Washington, which would have drafted 14th among the league's 21 teams, would have been capable of making the club next season.

"We made some good strides last year and I really didn't want to trade our first-round pick, because you want to build on those (draft picks)," he said. Washington had not dealt away a first-round pick since 1979.

"Doing this may seem to be a contradiction," Poile went on. "But I don't think there's anything wrong with a 24-year-old Dave Christian. Because of his versatility, he is more the type of player we want on the Capitals. He's played every position except goaltender."

Christian, who played for the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team three years ago, is primarily being considered for center duty, Poile said.

"He can also kill penalties, and play the point on the power play, which is one area we want to improve. With a healthy Darren Veitch and now Peter Andersson (from the Swedish national team) and Dave Christian, we should be able to do that."

Winnipeg used Washington's pick in the draft, which was held in Montreal, to obtain defenseman Bobby Dollas.

After trading their first-round pick, the Capitals did not have another choice until the fourth round, when they took center Tim Berg-land, a high school player from Minnesota. Bergland will attend the University of Minnesota on a scholarship, and is not expected to be part of the Capitals' plans for at least another two years.

In the fifth round, Washington drafted 18-year-old Martin Bouliane, a defenseman from Amqui, Quebec, described by Capitals officials as "Gaetan Duchesne's next-door neighbor, who speaks total French, no English."

Washington added a left wing, Dwaine Hutton, and a goaltender, Marty Abrams, in the seventh and eighth rounds. Hutton scored 21 goals, 11 on the power play, for the Kelowna (Alberta) Wings last season, and Abrams played for the Pembroke (Ontario) Lumberkings, a team once coached by Capitals Coach Bryan Murray.

The Capitals also drafted center Dave Kowan, from Washburn High School in Minneapolis, 17-year-old defenseman Yves Beaudoin, goalie Allain Raymond and center Anders Huss, from a junior club in Sweden.

In addition to Lawton, three other U.S.-born players--Pat Lafontaine, Tom Barrasso and Alfie Turcotte--were taken in the opening round.

Lafontaine, a center who scored 104 goals and 132 assists for the Verdun Juniors last season, was expected to be the second player chosen overall, but was bypassed by Hartford, which instead picked Sylvain Turgeon, a center the New York Islanders had planned to draft.

The Stanley Cup champions, utilizing the third choice overall they had obtained from New Jersey, added Lafontaine to their roster seconds later.

Barrasso, a goaltender, was chosen by Buffalo and center Turcotte went to Montreal, which used its seventh-round choice to draft Vladislav Tretiak, the goaltender of the Soviet Union.

The St. Louis Blues, whose status remains questionable, were not represented at the draft. The Ralston Purina Co., which owns the team, attempted to sell the club last month, but the approval for the potential buyers, a Saskatchewan-based group, was rejected by the league. Ralston Purina then sued the NHL for $60 million, and last week offered the team to the league for disposal or operation.

The Blues had no picks in the first or second rounds, but in the third and subsequent rounds, St. Louis, which would have drafted sixth, was called upon and then passed by the league. "No response" was listed next to St. Louis on each round's breakdown sheet, and the table designated for the Blues at the Forum remained vacant.

Ralston Purina advised the league last week to participate, or not, in the draft, as it chose; the company itself said it would have no part in it. Several St. Louis scouts paid their own way to Montreal, but were not authorized to act on the Blues' behalf.

The Buffalo Sabres made a multiple-player deal in the opening round, sending Tony McKegney, Andre Savard and Jean-Francois Sauve to the Quebec Nordiques in exchange for Real Cloutier and Quebec's first-round pick, which was used to draft center Adam Creighton.

In another deal, the Philadelphia Flyers traded defenseman Behn Wilson to the Chicago Black Hawks for defenseman Doug Crossman and a second-round draft pick next year.