Washington Capitals officials said yesterday they were aware of possible negative public reaction when they drafted Brian Sakic, who had legal problems before being selected earlier this month.

The high-scoring left wing was accused of -- but isn't likely to be prosecuted for -- sexual assault in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where he played hockey until early last fall.

"Yes, it did {occur to us}," General Manager David Poile said from Bermuda, where he is attending the American Hockey League meetings. "We talked about it organizationally. We checked out what happened, interviewed the player and were satisfied with what we were told. We went from there to make a hockey decision."

Four current Capitals players have been accused of raping a 17-year-old girl following a season-ending party in Georgetown in May. A D.C. Superior Court grand jury is investigating, but there has been no indication from prosecutors on whether there will be an indictment. No charges have been filed and the players have denied the accusations.

Sakic was selected by Washington in the fifth round of the June 16 NHL draft. He spent most of last season with Tri-Cities of the Western Hockey League following an early season trade from the Swift Current Broncos.

Last fall, the then 18-year-old Sakic and another player were arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl, according to Ellen Gunn, the executive director for public prosecution for the Province of Saskatchewan.

On Nov. 21, a "stay" was placed on the case by prosecutors. Gunn explained that a stay means the government does not plan to proceed with the case. If the stay remains in place for one year, the accused cannot be prosecuted.

Gunn explained Monday evening that the decision to apply the stay was based on the "evidence available." She indicated that at the moment there was no plan to proceed with the case.

"Based on the information currently available to the Crown {the prosecution}, the stay will not be lifted," she said from the provincial capital in Regina.

Soon after the stay was applied, the girl was accused of making false charges. However, a judge found her not guilty.

Although no one has been found guilty of anything, drafting Sakic, on the heels of the May incident in Georgetown, prompted the question of why the Capitals would risk aggravating an extremely sensitive situation.

"I guess the answer is that, in the view of the hockey people, there hadn't been any wrongdoing by Sakic," said Capitals President Dick Patrick. "The publicity here draws attention to it, and makes it more difficult on the young man. I hope it doesn't come across as any lack of sensitivity on the part of the organization. We are very sensitive."

Poile said the organizational discussion included himself and Jack Button, the team's director of player personnel, but did not include owner Abe Pollin. Poile said Button interviewed Sakic. Other scouts in the organization did, also, although not necessarily on that subject.

On Monday, Button reacted somewhat angrily to the question, saying that, as far as he was concerned, "Brian Sakic was as clean as a whistle."

NHL Notes:

Edmonton Oilers star Jari Kurri says he is close to signing a multiyear contract to play hockey in Italy next season. "I'm waiting for them to put it together. We just have to finalize some things," Kurri said from his home in Helsinki. His contract with the Oilers expires this month. He and his agent, Don Baizley, are negotiating a deal with the Milan Devils that reportedly would make Kurri Europe's highest-paid player. . . . The New York Rangers acquired goaltender Sam St. Laurent, 31, from the Detroit Red Wings for $1. The Rangers will take over the 11-year veteran's contract from the Red Wings. St. Laurent split last season between Detroit and its Adirondack farm club. In 14 games with Detroit, he was 2-6-1 with a 3.76 goals-against average. . . . The Red Wings signed defenseman Per Djoos, the seventh pick in the 1986 entry draft, to a two-year contract.