Scott Stevens's career with the Washington Capitals is over.

Capitals General Manager David Poile announced just after midnight this morning at Capital Centre that the team would not match the four-year, $5.1 million offer sheet that the 26-year-old defenseman signed last week with the St. Louis Blues. Poile also said the team would announce a trade at noon today, which would bring in a defenseman. He would not name the players involved because they had not yet been notified.

Poile said he and the organization decided Stevens was not worth the money and they could not work out a trade with another team.

"In reality," Poile said, "only two clubs would consider taking Stevens's salary."

Poile called Stevens in Ontario to inform him of the decision.

"It was definitely a waiting game," Stevens said by phone. "It's nice to know where my future lies. My wife {Donna} and I are excited about going to St. Louis."

The Blues will send the Capitals $100,000 and owe them their 1991 and 1992 first-round draft picks. If either of those picks is not in the top seven overall, then the Blues also will have to give the Capitals their first-round choices in 1993, 1994 and 1995.

With the addition of Stevens, the Blues are likely to do well enough that they won't have a top-seven pick, unless they make a trade for one or both. Thus it is likely the Capitals will have the Blues' next five first-round choices as well as their own five.

But losing Stevens will deal a severe blow to the Capitals' blueline corps. Poile may need to use some of those picks to trade for a top-of-the-line defenseman for next season.

Stevens was the first high-value free agent to move to another team since the current free agency system was put in place in 1982.

His signing with the Blues has been the most talked-about topic around the National Hockey League this past week, but his departure is only the second unusual event in a tumultuous summer for the Capitals. Stevens was one of four Capitals implicated by a 17-year-old girl who told D.C. police that she was sexually assaulted following a Georgetown party in May. A grand jury decided not to indict any of the players and, after the announcement of that decision, a source said there were never any allegations against Stevens. Through his attorney, Stevens said at the time that "during the investigation the government told me that I was merely a witness, as were others. I was interviewed by government authorities and voluntarily appeared before the grand jury."

Last night Stevens said: "That was not a factor. I had to support my family and St. Louis gave me an excellent offer. It obviously didn't bother St. Louis. It was bad thing. . . . We were the victims."

Poile had said earlier last evening that his decision would not be influenced by the recent events.

"We weighed all the parameters, with Scott and without Scott," he said. "There's no doubt we will have a big hole in the lineup without Scott. The salary situation relative to Scott and other players in the NHL was, in our opinion, way out of whack."

Stevens, who has spent most of the last few weeks fishing in the woods of Ontario, is expected to go to St. Louis today or Saturday to sign the contract that will make him the highest-paid defenseman in the NHL.

Stevens, who was an alternate captain last season, has been an important member of the defensive-oriented Capitals for eight seasons -- longer than any other player. Big and strong at 6 feet 1 and 215 pounds, Stevens is one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL. Last season he had 11 goals and 29 assists in 56 games and probably would have represented the Capitals in the all-star game (for the third time in his career) had he not broken his foot.

However, some question whether he is worth an average of $1.28 million per season. Sources have said the Blues' offer calls for Stevens to get a signing bonus of $1.4 million, with yearly salaries of $775,000, $875,000 and $975,000. In the option year of the contract (1993-94), Stevens would earn $1.12 million.

Poile had expected the complicated process to go down to the wire. He essentially had three choices. He could have re-signed Stevens and kept him on the squad, though Stevens's new salary would greatly distort the Capitals' current pay structure. Poile could have re-signed Stevens and traded him to another team. Or Poile could have allowed midnight to pass without doing anything, thereby letting Stevens go to the Blues.

Poile was on the phone all day and much of the night with teams exploring deals. By early evening he said he had whittled that down to "about three" serious discussions. Sources indicated Montreal might be one of the three teams. The Canadiens recently traded their top defenseman and highest-paid player, Chris Chelios, to Chicago. An Associated Press report said the Capitals would re-sign Stevens and trade him to the Canadiens or Los Angeles Kings.

Poile would not say which two teams were willing to even discuss Stevens's salary, but neither was from Canada. Because of the exchange rate, Stevens would earn even more in Canadian dollars.

Draft position is based on the final regular season standings, so there is no way of knowing where the Blues would pick in any future year. The Blues' first-round draft choices for the next five years are encumbered, which means they can't trade the picks or trade down within the first round.

If the Blues do not deliver a top-seven pick for the 1991 draft then the penalty picks will automatically kick in. If the Blues can provide a top-seven pick for 1991, they could wait until the day before the 1992 draft before having to come up with another top-seven pick.

Poile would rather have the two picks in the top seven than the five elsewhere in the first round.

"I've always been a believer in quality versus quantity," Poile said this week.