They take a licking but keep on winning

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Detroit Red Wings general manger Ken Holland was looking down the lineup sheet prior to his team's meeting the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night and made a startling observation.

By his count, the Wings had some $37.2 million in salary sitting on the sidelines -- almost four million more than the entire Sabres payroll:

Dominik Hasek (groin, $6 million),
Derian Hatcher (knee, $5 million),
Steve Yzerman (groin, $5.85 million),
Chris Chelios (knee, $5.94 million),
Ray Whitney (groin, $3 million),
Darren McCarty (back, $2.25 million),
Tomas Holmstrom (shoulder, $1.46 million),
Manny Legace (knee, $1.1 million),
Steve Thomas (knee, $1 million),
• and Henrik Zetterberg (leg, $675,000).

The 10 players make about $32.28 million this season in base pay. But factor in their bonus structures and you get where Holland is coming from.

For Wednesday's game in Buffalo, Curtis Joseph and Joey MacDonald were recalled from Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. Joseph won easily against a Buffalo team that opted not to compete, 7-2. Those two will probably go 1-2 tonight at Chicago.

"It's been different," said coach Dave Lewis, who has become dexterous at juggling the lineup on an almost nightly basis. "When you first put lines together you tend to do it based on the strength of the players you're using and what you're trying to accomplish with the line.

"After a while though, we're just putting things together in a way where we hope to be able to manufacture some scoring and some checking and to take some of the strain off our defense and goaltending."

How could you not?

Hasek and Legace are a 1-2 combination that, when healthy, carried the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup in 2002. Chelios is a future Hall of Famer and Hatcher, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, has a good shot at being one. Up front, Yzerman is an automatic Hall member and a valued faceoff man; McCarty is a rock-solid grinder, the kind every team needs to win tough games; Holmstrom is a pain-in-the-posterior who takes the punishment to score a goal; and Thomas, recently signed as a free agent, is a veteran performer who facilitates hard work and determination, as he did last season with the Mighty Ducks. Zetterberg was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year last season, and Whitney is a proven pro.

There are a lot of teams that couldn't put a lineup that strong on the ice. The Wings are winning without them.

"Honestly, it's more than a little unusual," Lewis said. "I've never seen anything like it in my 30 years in the league. All you can do is approach it every day as if it were a new challenge. We've still got a veteran group of guys here who are willing to accept that (challenge) and we're getting a look at some new people."

There were seven players in the Detroit lineup Wednesday that have seen significant playing time in the AHL this season. Add Joseph, recently assigned there after clearing waivers on the strength of his $8 million per-year contract, and it's actually eight.

Lewis said he recognizes that Joseph, the Red Wings No. 1 goalie until Hasek emerged from retirement during the offseason, is in a difficult position, but made a point of noting that "he's a pro and I know he'll approach things that way."

Joseph did, turning in a performance that was among the best on the ice Wednesday night, despite the fact he took a bus from Grand Rapids to Cleveland on Tuesday, then rented a car and drove 200 miles from Cleveland to Buffalo in order to meet the team there.

Lewis also was able to keep parts of his lines intact, keeping Brett Hull with Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Draper with Kirk Maltby, Brendan Shanahan with Boyd Deveraux and Jason Williams with Darryl Bootland.

It's been a little tougher on defense, but still the Red Wings persevere.

"You try to find some balance," Lewis said. "The only thing constant has been the changes, but that's the challenge in building the line combinations. You make an effort to find something that enables the guys to feel comfortable while you are also trying to construct something that allows you to try to accomplish something in terms of goal scoring and checking and what not. There's been some uncertainty but also an opportunity for some of the guys to step into different roles.

"In the end, hockey is hockey and the players adjust."

And in the case of the Red Wings, they also win.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.