Justin Vaive has played 23 games since joining the Hartford Wolf Pack on a Professional Tryout (PTO) agreement January 11, and although his offensive output has been limited to one goal and four points, he has used his 6-4, 210-pound frame to make a solid impact in the forechecking department.
Vaive’s game has been particularly useful for the Pack lately, with the third-year pro playing left wing on a line with 6-1, 192-pound rookie Shawn O’Donnell on the other wing. Those two flankers are both straight-line players who stress getting in on the forecheck, and pride themselves on making life difficult for opposing defensemen.
“That’s definitely our keys of focus going into every shift,” Vaive said recently. “We want to get it deep and wear down their ‘D’, and that’s why we’re here and what we’re here to do, is to be pests and to be an annoyance to their defensemen. No D wants to go back every time and get hit, and have to wrap it (the puck) around (the boards) and then get hit again. It wears on D, especially in three-in-threes (three games in three days) in this league. By Sunday (of three-game weekends), D definitely feel those shifts.”
The Vaive-O’Donnell line, which has seen several different centermen in recent games, is nominally the Wolf Pack’s fourth line, but coach Ken Gernander tends not to use the unit like a fourth line. Gernander is definitely a coach who prefers to “roll” his lines and get his fourth line regular shifts, keeping those big bodies totally involved in the rhythm of the game.
“It’s definitely a confidence-booster for us,” Vaive said,” “when your coach believes in you and he’s putting us out there in all situations, defensive zone, offensive zone, any time in the period. It’s definitely good for the morale of the line.
“When you’re out there more, you’re more involved, and more involved in the game overall, not just the sense of your line,” he continued. “You’re seeing everybody, you’re talking to everybody, and it just gives you a better feeling as a line, when you’re out there and you’re playing together more and more. It’s easier to jell and know what other guys are going to be doing and stuff like that.”
For several games during the Wolf Pack’s current hot streak, Gernander had team leading scorer Oscar Lindberg playing the middle between Vaive and O’Donnell. While this may have seemed odd on the surface of it, having the team’s most productive pivot working the fourth line, the threesome appeared to have plenty of chemistry, and Lindberg fit right in with the two bangers and crashers.
“Oscar, he works really hard,” Vaive said of the Swedish import Lindberg. “When we get it (the puck) in there (the offensive zone), and if we can’t get to the puck first, we could always count on him, to be there first on the line. He’s physical, he’s not shy of the physical play. That complements guys like Shawn and me, when our center’s willing to get in there with us and grind it around in the corners. And then, at the same time, he adds that skill element, being our leading scorer, that when we do get him the puck, he can definitely make plays with it.”
Lindberg’s willingness to get into the middle of the physical play is typical of all of the Wolf Pack’s skill players, according to Vaive, and that makes it easier for the grinders to be effective in their jobs.
“There’s no doubt that’s what’s going to help team win games, when guys can play every role,” he said. “We saw it with Oscar, going from the second to the fourth to the third, he’s been everywhere, and yet he still continues to succeed and break through, no matter what line he’s on.”
And regardless of who has been between them, Vaive and O’Donnell have meshed together as solid bookends, and have built a wealth of all-around chemistry with one another since Vaive joined the squad. Their locker room stalls are next to one another, and their approaches to the game are nearly identical.
“We’ve become pretty close,” said Vaive of himself and the gregarious O’Donnell. “We’re in the corner in the locker room, we’re roommates, obviously we talk a lot playing together, we both play the same game. So I think we have a lot in common, and it’s definitely translated to the ice.”
Vaive can be termed somewhat of a “city boy”, having spent much of his growing-up time in Toronto, and O’Donnell is more of a small-town guy, a Maritimer from the same town that produced Sidney Crosby, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Vaive has roots on the east coast of Canada, too, though, and the kinship with O’Donnell has come easily.
“Both of my parents are from out there (the Maritimes), and all my extended family as well, so there was that connection,” Vaive said. “It’s definitely easy to get along with him, and even easier to play with him.”
With Vaive’s imposing size, strength and long reach, his “tale of the tape” is solid for involvement in the fistic department. His grooming for the pro level was in the U.S. college ranks, where fighting is prohibited, but in the pro game, his hard-charging approach has naturally led to some situations where he has been invited to throw down the mitts and test his scrapping skills.
“When you play a physical, hard-nosed game and you’re a bigger guy, it’s going to come along,” said Vaive of the fighting element. “When you take exceptions on some of the smaller D-men, obviously guys are there to step up for them and have their back. Unfortunately I’ve had some injuries where I wasn’t able to do it (drop the gloves) as much as I would like, but it’s always going to be a part of the game, when you’re in there and stirring things up and going to the net hard. It’s a pretty emotional game and pretty physical, so I try to use it whenever it’s necessary.”
Vaive’s willingness to do that, as well as other yeoman work in the physical department, has made him a good fit in the Wolf Pack lineup, and earned him a seemingly solid niche in the organization.
“That was my plan all along,” Vaive said, “just to give it my all and play the game that I know I can play, and just try to do what I can to help the team win, and overall just make my impact felt on the coaching staff and in the locker room, everywhere. As long as I keep doing that, hopefully things will continue to go my way.”