The Washington Capitals continued their shuttle to St. Louis by announcing yesterday that left wing Geoff Courtnall had been traded to the Blues hours after the Capitals decided not to match the Blues' multimillion-dollar offer to defenseman Scott Stevens.

Stevens became Blues' property at midnight Thursday night after the Capitals passed on the four-year, $5.1 million offer sheet he signed with St. Louis last week. In the final hours, the Blues and Capitals worked out a trade -- announced yesterday -- that sent Courtnall to the Blues for center Peter Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor. The trade announcement was held off in an attempt to first notify the players involved.

Stevens's departure ends an eight-year career with the Capitals, who drafted him and put him in uniform as an 18-year-old from Kitchener, Ontario. The 26-year-old defenseman leaves as the franchise's leader in penalty minutes and the fourth-highest scorer. As compensation, the Capitals will receive two or five first-round draft choices, depending on their position. Courtnall, 27, completed two seasons with the Capitals, scoring 42 and then 35 goals. Last season he was the Capitals' second-leading scorer with 74 points.

"It's kind of nice to go somewhere with someone you know," Stevens said yesterday by phone from his cottage in the wilds of Ontario. "Geoff and I are pretty good friends. It's kind of neat."

Stevens and Courtnall, along with Neil Sheehy and Dino Ciccarelli, were the four Capitals named in a complaint by a 17-year-old who said she was raped and sodomized in a limousine outside Champions bar in Georgetown in May. The players denied the allegations and a D.C. Superior Court grand jury decided on June 29 not to indict. After the announcement, a source said there were never any allegations against Stevens, who testified before the grand jury.

Stevens said his decision to sign with St. Louis was based solely on the lucrative offer from the Blues, who will make him the NHL's highest-paid defenseman.

"I had to support my family and St. Louis gave me an excellent offer," Stevens said. "It {the accusation} obviously didn't bother St. Louis.

"It was a bad thing . . . We were the victims."

Courtnall, however, asked to be traded, and General Manager David Poile worked out the deal that may allay some of the outrage fans felt over the May incident.

"I have talked to Geoff Courtnall and his agent," Ellis Atchem, Poile said at a midday news conference, "and they expressed the feeling that it would be difficult for Geoff to come back to Washington to perform in front of the fans and deal with the media."

Reached at home in Victoria, British Columbia, Courtnall said he felt relieved to be moving on.

"I feel pretty happy but I hate to have to leave," he said. "I just felt that, under the circumstances, it was too tough to live every day and be under the gun because of the incident."

Zezel, 25, who spent 4 1/2 years with the Philadelphia Flyers, scored 25 goals last season and adds depth at center. "He was always a thorn in our side," said Poile, who said he thinks Zezel could generate more points than Courtnall.

Lalor, 27, is a strong, defensive-oriented defenseman, who played with the Montreal Canadiens before the Blues.

"With Scott gone to St. Louis, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize we have a big hole on defense," Poile said. "The first move in that direction is to get Mike Lalor. He is what I would like to say is a Capitals' type of foundation player. He goes about his job unspectacularly but gets the job done."

Stevens is the first highly paid player to sign an offer sheet since the NHL's restrictive free agency rules were put in place in 1982. While it sent shock waves through the NHL, it was only the second most unsettling event this year for the Capitals. Poile said the Champions incident left "scars" with the fans and the community.

"The off-ice situation just didn't go away and it won't go away just because the grand jury didn't take any action," Poile said. "It is with us as an organization, with the media and with our fans. It's something we're going to have to deal with and put behind us."

Poile said that Ciccarelli and Sheehy, unlike Courtnall, had not asked to be traded and anyone anticipating a trade involving those two would, at this point, be in error.

"These players are all members of the Washington Capitals and will be treated as that," Poile said. But that also means that if another club offers a good deal, the Capitals would consider it.

"I talked to Neil and Dino and both expressed a strong interest in that they would like to stay here and will do anything and everything that they are called upon to do for the club on the ice, and more importantly, off the ice," Poile said.

Stevens had seemed the most likely to remain with the Capitals. He is generally recognized as one of the league's top defensemen, but he and his agent, Rick Bennett, could not reach an agreement with Poile.

His deal with the Blues calls for him to get a $1.4 million signing bonus, with yearly salaries of $775,000, $875,000 and $975,000. In the option year, Stevens would earn $1.12 million.

The Capitals had a week to decide among essentially three options. They could have re-signed Stevens and kept him on the squad. They could have re-signed him and traded him. Or they could have done what they did, which is accept the compensation. That entails $100,000 and the Blues' first-round picks in 1991 and 1992. If either of those picks is not in the top seven overall, then the Capitals will also get the Blues' first-round picks in '93, '94 and '95.

If the Capitals had kept Stevens, it would have greatly distorted the salary structure of the team, which had the second-lowest payroll in the NHL last season.

"It was not a situation we spent a lot of time on," Poile said. He said he tried for a trade, but said only two teams were willing to pay Stevens at his new level and they wouldn't offer a deal Poile liked.

"I had a very difficult time getting my fellow managers to focus on a player of Scott Stevens's stature," Poile said. "Obviously, they were unfocused by the amount of the contract that was offered."