Before the National Hockey League created its draft of junior players in the 1960s, it developed talent through sponsored youth teams. It was a rare skater who entered his teens without being bound to the negotiation list of an NHL club.

Just as it was difficult to assess the abilities of potential stars then, so it is becoming tough today to draft players with any certainty that they will succeed in the NHL.

When the 21 NHL teams make their selections in Toronto Saturday, they can only hope that their research will produce results a few years down the line. Many of the eligibles, aged 17 and 18, have played only one year of junior hockey, often against teams diluted of talent by previous NHL drafts, and there is little way of discerning what they will be like in top-level competition.

That is not to say that the NHL clubs have not tried to look into the future. In the case of the Washington Capitals, they have talked to players, parents and coaches to get an edge when their turn to pick finally arrives in 19th place.

"It's a little more sophisticated than a guessing game," said Jack Button, the Capitals' director of player personnel. "I've been on the road since the Memorial Cup (which ended May 18), interviewing kids and having supper with kids and their parents. I've had 37 in-depth interviews.

"It's an attempt to eliminate the guesswork, to find out what these kids think. I've done this before, but not as extensively as this year. One Saturday I was in Boston talking with kids from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

"To do what we call an athletic motivational inventory, I'll spend three to 3 1/2 hours with a kid and his parents. Then I'll make follow-up phone calls to resolve any questions that may come up, particularly on the kid's side, because some of them are pretty hesitant the first time you meet.

"If I could get three of the players out of this draft that I've interviewed, I'd be ecstatic. I'm sure some of the 37 will have problems somewhere. There has to be an element of luck in something like this, but you try to take as much out of that as you can."

Button has not conducted in-depth interviews with Craig Simpson, Dana Murzyn, Wendel Clark and Jim Sandlak. They are the top-ranked players, according to the Central Scouting rating system, and all figure to be gone before Washington has a chance to pick.

"If we should move up in the draft, we know them, anyway," Button said.

There is always the possibility that the Capitals can effect some kind of a deal to improve their position, as they did the year they hornswoggled Hartford out of Bob Carpenter by obtaining Colorado's first-round choice.

General Manager David Poile would love to pull some strings to acquire a big left wing like Derek King of Sault Ste. Marie, who is rated 10th. It is unlikely Poile will manage anything earth-shaking in the trade area, however, considering the Capitals' late drafting status and his commitment not to disrupt what he considers a championship nucleus.

"I'm not going to make a deal for the sake of making a deal and I won't go into the heart of our hockey club," Poile said. "If I do something, it will be on the fringes, a draft choice or something like that."

It would be no surprise if one of the Capitals who struggled this season -- Alan Haworth, Craig Laughlin and Bob Gould would qualify -- were let go to enable Washington to move up the drafting ladder.

If not, the best of the residue when No. 19 rolls around could include Brad Dalgarno, a 6-foot-3 right wing from Hamilton; Brad Lauer, a 6-1 right wing from Regina; Chris Biotti, a 6-3 defenseman from Massachusetts; Jose Charbonneau, a 6-foot right wing from Drummondville, and Tom Chorske, a 6-1 left wing from Minnesota.

Biotti, Chorske and New Yorker Perry Florio are three outstanding U.S. defensemen who could be first-round selections. The only other U.S.-born player with impressive credentials is Craig Wolanin, a Michigan native who played defense for Kitchener.

The fifth-rated U.S. player on the Central Scouting list is Virginia-born Eric Weinrich, who attended North Yarmouth Academy. He is also a defenseman, continuing the trend that has seen the U.S. develop so many outstanding defenders while lagging in the forward department.

Although there are no names like Mario Lemieux and Kirk Muller, the 1-2 choices of a year ago, Button believes that a few years down the line, people will look back on this draft as a productive one.

"It's a good draft in the sense that it's a year to build depth for any team with all its draft choices," Button said. "There are no Mario Lemieuxs in this draft, but there is good depth and some very useful hockey players.

"Certainly, this is the craziest draft yet. We're now into a full-blown underage situation and you have to be very astute in your judgments. Players will emerge as stars, but they're hard to pick out. You could find another Bryan Trottier in the second round, another Scott Stevens who hasn't had much said about him after just one year of junior A.

"We're almost back to the point where we were with sponsorships. There's a lot more emphasis right now on free agents. Everybody doesn't develop at the same age. You get late bloomers developing in the universities, where they can play two or three years and develop their skills.

"A lot of kids are looking at alternatives like universities. Perhaps they're drafted by a junior team in an area where they don't want to play, so they'll go to a university, instead. But it's more of a problem for the university than us. After a year or two, the good kid like Simpson will turn pro."

Button claims to be "more encouraged going into this draft than a lot of others." A principal reason is the Capitals' ability to pick players on the basis of long-range potential.

Many remember 1980, when the club passed up Paul Coffey and Brent Sutter to choose Darren Veitch, because of the necessity to pick someone who could play in the NHL immediately.

Veitch was able to move right in, but in the long run Washington paid a price for expediency -- possibly even a Stanley Cup.