Right wing Bill Riley, who had not played for the Washington Capitals since Jan. 9 and had seen limited action before that, was shipped to Hershey of the American Hockey League yesterday.

Defenseman Bryan Watson, who has not dressed for a game since Dec. 23, went through practice as usual with the Capitals. There are no plans to send him anywhere. And, despite injuries to both Leif Svensson and Yvon Labre, Watson probably won't play tonight when the Detroit Red Wings visit Capital Center for a 7:30 contest.

Instead, General Manager Max McNab indicated that if Svensson and Labre cannot play, as seems likely, he will call up Jack Lynch from Hershey. Lynch's right knee was being examined yesterday in Cambridge, Mass., following earlier checkups here and in Toronto, to determine whether he has recovered completely from surgery 13 months ago.

The subject of Watson's playing time is repeatedly raised as the Capitals travel around the NHL. Additionally, he is constantly questioned by fans as he watches the home games from the stands.

"It's very hard to explain when you don't know the answer," said Watson, voted the team's most popular player a year ago. "I've tried to look at it as positively as I can. I work as hard as I can in practice, I work with the kids and I run every day with a neighbor -- I'm up to 3 1/2 miles now. I feel I'm in pretty good shape and I'm ready if I'm called on here or elsewhere.

"This has been a very, very frustrating winter for me and my family. It's hard to go from playing 30 to 35 minutes a night for so many years to not playing at all. I've missed 25 games now, but for all purposes I've really only played five or six games on defense. It's been just awful."

McNab has not sought waivers on Watson, despite his $100,000-plus salary, but he indicated yesterday that it might be about time to give the 36-year-old defenseman an opportunity to play elsewhere.

"We're not in business to hold anybody up," McNab said. "Originally, we had very strong plans for Bryan, befre Svensson and (Pete) Scamurra emerged. They because pretty sound players for us and, after all, we have made a decision to go with the young guys. We're trying to build a defense for the future.

"Bryan has a home here and this is a pretty good base for him in his long-range plans. We didn't want to disrupt him. But any pro has to play and it's a situation we'll be looking into pretty closely."

"We've had a lot of defensemen here, many of equal ability," said Coach Danny Belisle. "When the ability is very close, the factor of youth comes in. It's better for the future of the team to have Svensson, Scamurra and (Gordie) Lane developing than to have Bryan out there.

"I know he's popular here, but players are gone who were popular. People must think I have something in for this guy or that guy, but all I want to do is put the best possible team on the ice. I've told everybody here they'll be judged on performance and we have to find out who performs.

"Bryan's play has been fair, like some of the others. We're currently using a five-man squad on defense, with four lines up front. We've been going pretty well, about.500 over the last 15 games, and I don't like to make changes on defense when we're going well. I want a particular pair to work together and communicate. A defensive change shakes up two guys and it's a lot more of a change than moving a guy onto a line. I don't like to shake things up unless we're going bad back there."

The injury jinx seems to be shaking things up, but whether it results in a new shake for Watson remains to be seen. Meanwhile, he practices hard and tries to retain his sense of humor. At a recent home game, for example, he walked up to a reporter who has known him for years, held out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Bryan Watson. I play for the Capitals."

The departure of Riley, who scored two goals in 24 games, leaves Tony McKegney of Buffalo as the only black player in the NHL...