Defenseman Derek Meech saw time at forward Monday night for the Wings, who are down two players because of injuries but too close to the salary cap to call anybody up. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
A crooked grin broke across Mike Babcock's face. He was asked if seeing recent Stanley Cup winners Anaheim, Carolina and Tampa Bay presently outside the playoffs and Detroit on the bubble wasn't proof the salary cap system is working.
"Well, I don't know," he said. "I thought the system was working real good when we could spend more money than everyone else and we could always have more talent than everyone else. I liked that system."
Now more than ever Detroit would like to be operating under the old system. Here it was Monday, coming off back-to-back overtime games and a cross-country flight from Vancouver, and playing another critical game against Pittsburgh with a depleted roster.
It appeared for a while the Red Wings might have to dress 17 skaters, but tests for an undisclosed ailment on defenseman Brad Stuart came back negative and he was in the lineup.
Still, for the second straight game, the Wings were down two forwards -- Patrick Eaves (back and neck soreness) and Danny Cleary (groin).
In a perfect world, general manager Ken Holland would make a call to Grand Rapids and summon Justin Abdelkader. But he can't do that because his payroll is roughly $200,000 under the salary cap and a minimum contract is $500,000. He would have to place a player on the long term injured list to make room and neither injury warrants it.
"We've known the rules since Day One, and we made our decisions and we will live with them," Holland said. "We made the decision to keep 20 skaters on the payroll, giving us two extra to protect ourselves. If we get two or three short-term injuries, then we will just have to dress less than the full complement and try to make do."
Defensemen Derek Meech and Brett Lebda replaced the two injured forwards.
It's a no-win situation for Holland. He could have tried to keep the payroll $500,000 to $1 million under the cap to cover himself against a situation like this. But that would have meant having less roster depth (or talent) throughout the season.
And given that the Wings have lost 293 man games to injury this season, saving that $500,000 to $1 million and having less depth was inconceivable. Would you prefer Holland not sign Drew Miller in November so he could have that money now? The Wings might not even be in playoff contention had it not been for Miller's contributions.
"We just have to put the best lineup we can on the ice and play our best," captain Nick Lidstrom said.
The positive is, it appears Eaves and Cleary will be ready to play Wednesday.
Eaves said he was still feeling stiffness in his upper back and neck from his collision with Edmonton's Aaron Johnson last week. He said he didn't think he suffered a concussion.
Cleary injured his left groin late against Edmonton. He skated Monday but felt it would be best to let it heal a couple more days. He tore his right groin in the playoffs last year.
"It felt a lot better today and we're hoping it will feel that much better on Wednesday," Cleary said.
The Wings would not disclose the nature of Stuart's injury, only that it happened late against the Canucks.
Nick Lidstrom became the 31st player in history to play in 1,400 games. Only three others have played more in a Red Wings uniform:
Wings in 10
Coaches and general managers like to break up the season in 10-game segments to measure progress. Charting the Wings season in 10-game increments only confirms the bumpy ride: