Team Canada, the collection of National Hockey League stars that defeated the Soviets in the Canada Cup, was selected Monday afternoon as Canada's team of the year in a Canadian Press poll. At about the time that announcement was made, one of Team Canada's heroes, defenseman Larry Murphy of the Washington Capitals, was stretched out on a couch in a hotel lobby, reading a newspaper.

That seemed a strange place for the traditional game-day nap, but Murphy said he was "having trouble relaxing." It was not a case of pregame jitters, because a few hours earlier Murphy had been told by Coach Bryan Murray that he would not dress for Monday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Those were not pleasant words for Murray to utter, or for Murphy to hear. But on this night in December, 3 1/2 months after he was spraying champagne in Team Canada's hour of glory, Murphy was told he was not wanted for a contest of far lesser dimensions.

Actually, the Capitals need Murphy, the man who led them in scoring and plus-minus rating last season, a second-team all-star who finished third in the Norris Trophy voting for outstanding defenseman in the NHL. What they do not need is the Murphy who has been struggling so horribly this month.

"We need Larry to get going. We've got to have him playing at his best if we're going to go anywhere," said team captain Rod Langway, whose return to the lineup finally gave Murray the opportunity to implement the benching of Murphy, something Murray had considered more than once.

"I didn't feel good about sitting Larry Murphy out," Murray said. "I was proud he played well in the Canada Cup, was recognized as a candidate for the Norris Trophy and had such a good year. It's not an easy decision to make, but you reach a point where something has to be done.

"It was a message I wanted to get across as much as anything; that top player or not, we have to make changes if we aren't more successful. We're approaching the important part of our schedule, with a lot of divisional games, and we have to have our top people like Larry playing at a higher level."

The Capitals are interested in seeing how Murphy plays tonight in New Jersey. He accepted the benching, but it was not necessary as a means of letting him know he has been playing poorly. He has been aware of that fact for some time, while apparently helpless to change it.

"No one likes to go through hard times and I haven't been satisfied with my game for some time," Murphy said. "I go out every night and hope to turn things around. Obviously, I haven't done that."

Asked if he had tried to dig into the reasons for his slump or attempt to work out his problems in practice, Murphy replied, "I can't give you a reason."

Murphy declines to use the Canada Cup as an excuse, or the fact he had a recent bout with bronchitis and briefly was bothered by a sore hip. "I have no excuses," he said. "I'm accountable for everything I do."

It could be nothing more than the time of year. Last season, Murphy got off to a good start, was minus-10 through a nine-game stretch in late December and early January, then compiled a remarkable plus-25 rating over the last 36 games.

Actually, Murphy's statistics belie his current problems. He is plus-two in his last eight games, but it is simply the result of a charmed life, because he repeatedly has given up the puck and has played hesitantly for several weeks.

"When you sit a player like Larry out, even though he's struggling, it may cost you a point," Murray said. "He has the ability to make a play and score a goal. When you select guys to play on your team, you try to stick with them as long as you can."

If Murphy's absence after 184 straight games was tied to Langway's return, the replacement Monday of Lou Franceschetti and Ed Kastelic by Mike Richard and Yvon Corriveau was more calculated. All four players, along with Murphy, are native to the Toronto area.

"I'm sure there was family here to watch and that should be meaningful," Murray said. "When you have extra bodies that can play, you're in a position to exert some pressure that's realistic."

In retrospect, it would appear the Capitals made a mistake in September when they preselected the team and gave the impression that no one else was capable of pushing the chosen 20.

Murray explained, "What we tried to do was say this is our team and, 'Here's the ball, guys. Play with confidence, believe in yourselves and win some hockey games.' You'd think that would be an approach a veteran hockey club could handle and I'd like to believe that philosophy would create a close-knit bunch of guys who'd have some success."

The Capitals' 15-17-5 record decreed another approach.

In NHL games last night, the New York Rangers and Islanders tied, 3-3; Quebec beat Buffalo, 5-1, Boston and Pittsburgh tied, 4-4; and Montreal beat Vancouver, 4-1.