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Eight possible fits for former Texans star J.J. Watt – Sportsnet.ca

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NFL fans were somewhat taken aback Friday morning with the news the Houston Texans had released J.J. Watt, the greatest defensive player in that franchise’s history.

Watt posted a video on his social media where he explained he asked ownership to release him from the final year of his contract – he was set to earn $17.5 million in 2021 – and the two sides mutually agreed to part ways.

Since making his NFL debut a decade ago, Watt’s 101 sacks are second-most behind Von Miller’s 106 and the 31-year-old is one of three players in NFL history to win Defensive Player of the Year three times.

Now, is Watt the perennial All-Pro and DPOY contender he was earlier in his career? No.

Is he still among the best defensive linemen in football? When healthy, yes.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pound star’s versatility along the line adds to his value. He can play on the edge or shift to the interior depending on the personnel group. That’s to say there will be a long line of teams wanting to add a talent like him.

“I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity and I’ve been working extremely hard, but at the same time it’s always tough to move on,” Watt said in his video.

Joining a legitimate contending team could make moving on a little easier for Watt, so with that in mind here are eight possible fits for the future Hall of Famer.

THE OBVIOUS OPTIONS TIER

Green Bay Packers
The Packers have had the best record in the NFC in back-to-back seasons and have the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers yet they’ve lost each of the past two NFC Championship games in large part because the defence didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

Watt was born in Wisconsin, grew up cheering for the Packers and starred in the Big Ten at the University of Wisconsin for two seasons before being selected 11th-overall in the 2011 draft.

Cheeseheads would love seeing Watt line up beside Kenny Clark on the defensive line. It would be the type of signing reminiscent of when the late Reggie White joined Green Bay when he was in his 30s and on the back-nine of his Hall of Fame career.

Pittsburgh Steelers
This would be a reunion for the Watt brothers with T.J. and Derek both on the team already. In fact, it took only about 15 minutes for T.J., who many football fans felt should’ve been named 2020 DPOY over Aaron Donald, to respond to his brother’s post with a well-placed GIF.

It wouldn’t be the easiest move to pull off from a financial standpoint with the Steelers currently over the cap and needing to resolve the issue of Ben Roethlisberger being owed $41.25 million next season. Roethlisberger is owed a $15-million bonus on March 19, so expect the team to either restructure his deal or cut ties with the two-time Super Bowl champ before that date. The team’s decision on their longtime QB could have an impact on whether they aggressively pursue a third Watt.

THE ‘OH, COME ON THAT’S UNFAIR’ TIER

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite his credentials, Watt’s teams in Houston had little post-season success. He only suited up for eight playoff games during his tenure there and if you’re going to join a winner, why not join the winner.

The defending champion Bucs could potentially lose edge rusher Shaq Barrett and linebacker Lavonte David in free agency. Signing a bunch of stars certainly worked out for the Bucs last off-season. Why not go back to that winning formula – especially if Barrett leaves town.

Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs could use a boost to their D-line. Watt would be a short-term solution to help take pressure off Chris Jones and Frank Clark, and put more pressure on opposing QBs. One daunting hurdle here is the fact the Chiefs have more than $55 million committed to the defensive line for 2021, with Jones’s and Clark’s combined salaries making up most of that. You’d have to think Watt would also garner eight figures annually.

Hat tip to my colleague Craig Battle, who pointed out Watt to Kansas City would be shades of Kevin Durant to Golden State.

The Warriors added Durant in 2016 after failing to repeat as champs when they lost in the Finals to LeBron James, a legend who’s always in the middle of basketball’s GOAT conversation.

Kansas City just failed to repeat as champs when it lost in the Super Bowl to Tom Brady, a legend who’s always at the centre of football’s GOAT conversation. We all know how that worked out for the Warriors.

THE ‘HMM…THAT WOULD BE INTERESTING’ TIER

Buffalo Bills
As it currently stands, the Bills have the fourth-best odds to win next season’s Super Bowl behind the Bucs, Chiefs and Packers. Watt was built to play in the cold and he’d become a fan favourite relatively quickly in Buffalo. The Bills were exposed by the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. They don’t have an abundance of cap space but making room to add Watt would help close the gap on the Chiefs in the AFC.

Cleveland Browns
This one’s quite simple. Cleveland is a team on the rise, they have cap space and Olivier Vernon is headed to free agency. Targeting Watt to essentially replace Vernon and play on the opposite side of Myles Garrett sounds enticing. On paper, the Browns are a great fit.

Tennessee Titans
Would Watt consider reuniting with Mike Vrabel, who was the Texans linebackers coach from 2014-2016 and the defensive coordinator in 2017 before landing the Titans gig? Tennessee’s offence can be an imposing group. The same can’t be said about the defence.

Indianapolis Colts
Sticking in the AFC South, the Colts have a solid enough foundation that they may be only a few key pieces away from contending for a Lombardi Trophy. Obviously, they’ll need to figure out who lines up behind centre as well, but Indy has tons of cap space it could use to its advantage. Watt playing beside DeForest Buckner would be intimidating. The Colts had a respectable sack total in 2020 but DEs Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad are all pending free agents.

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In Flames’ loss to Senators, self-inflicted pains push Calgary to new lows – Sportsnet.ca

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Pulled midway through the game after surrendering four goals, David Rittich paused as he walked towards the dressing room to headbutt a door.

Rather forcefully.

It’s the kind of move the organization has mimicked of late, self-inflicting all sorts of pain to reach new lows Thursday.

A 6-1 loss to the last-placed Ottawa Senators wiped out any good feelings the Flames may have generated in Toronto the previous two outings, leaving the Flames with just one regulation win in their last eight games.

It marked the third time in six games the team’s starter was pulled from the game.

In that span, the Flames have scored just eight goals, finishing with only one goal in five of the six.

So much for the players’ belief that the team’s identity revolves around being a hard-checking team that can score.

Only seven teams in the league have scored fewer goals per game, which coach Geoff Ward and several players believe has plenty to do with the high rate of neutral zone turnovers costing them zone entries.

“The last little bit we’ve been having trouble getting into the offensive zone – that’s certainly going to be a factor,” said Ward, adding his team isn’t getting to the inside once in the zone.

“We missed the net an awful lot. That’s not the only night that has happened.”

This cub seems to be running out of answers these days.

And time.

Playing the second half of a back-to-back following their loss in Toronto Wednesday, the Flames trailed 2-0 after the first period before a Milan Lucic goal breathed life into the visitors two minutes into the second.

Five minutes later the Senators had scored two more, including an Erik Brannstrom slapper from outside the blueline that eluded Rittich and ultimately ended his otherwise impressive return to form of late.

It was a tough pill for Rittich to swallow after stopping 70 shots in a row against the Leafs before losing the game in overtime.

“After the fourth one it’s tough,” said Andersson, whose club showed very little pushback after that. “We played in their zone quite a bit and got some shots through and it just felt like every time we had a turnover or odd-man [rush] against they capitalized. We’ve got to stick together and believe in each other still and try to create more energy.”

And try not to make it so obvious that, after an admittedly bad goal, they don’t give up.

“Feels like it was deflating after the third goal, and especially the fourth goal [but] we can’t let a goal suck the life out of us the way it has recently,” said Lucic, whose club gave up two more in the third with Flames fourth-stringer Artyom Zagidulin making his NHL debut.

“We’ve got to be better. This one definitely is not a good feeling right now.”

Playing their fifth game in seven nights, the Flames were indeed showing it, admittedly not at their best following an emotional ending in Toronto less than 24 hours earlier.

Nonetheless, you can bet the noise calling for the coach to be fired, trades to be made and hell to pay will reach a feverish pitch Friday.

Well aware of that, Lucic wanted his thoughts known on where the blame should lie.

“This one is on us, it’s on the players,” said Lucic, a longtime supporter of Ward, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in Boston.

“The coaching staff hasn’t changed from last year and that was one of our strong points and when we started to move in the right direction, playing as a five man unit and for each other and sacrificing for each other. We need to find that again. That’s up to the players and no one else.”

Those who tuned in to see how the Tkachuk brothers would fare against one another left disappointed, as neither found the scoresheet despite generating ten shots and ten hits between them. Big Brady had nine of those hits.

“Anybody that thinks we’re going to fight is an idiot,” declared Matthew before the game, potentially costing the broadcast some viewers.

“I don’t know why people keep saying that each and every year. They obviously haven’t played against their brother in a sport ever.”

If you’re a Flames fan the most entertaining moment of the night was when the button on analyst Kelly Hrudey’s jacket was shown popping off to start the third period, causing the veteran broadcaster to laugh hysterically.

Flames fans will have to smile through the pain until Saturday when game two of this four-game series starts at 11 a.m. MT.

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Player grades: Brilliant goaltending at both ends as Edmonton Oilers beat Vancouver Canucks – Edmonton Journal

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The game was a hockey cliche in all the best ways, featuring both fire wagon hockey and an old timey goalie’s duel.

Goalies Mike Smith and Thatcher Demko put on a show, but Smith stole it.

In the end, Edmonton was able to score on its power play chances while Vancouver was not, and that was the difference.

Edmonton had 14 Grade A chances, Vancouver 13, many of them of the Five Alarm variety for both teams.

For example, Edmonton had four breakaways on Demko but scored on not one of them.

Here’s the running count for scoring chances and below are the game grades.

Connor McDavid, 6. He got a goal and an assist, fired seven shots on net, made some great attacking plays, but also some serious defensive miscues. Came out flying, charging in on for a partial breakaway early in the first. He came close to jamming in a power play rebound shot in the second, but Demko thwarted him again. He made a defensive miscue in the second, letting Travis Hamonic creep in for a wicked shot, which led to a rebound and two more point blank Grade A chances against. A moment later he made another mistake, allowing a cross-seam on a Jake Virtanen one-timer. Fortunately Smith was there to cover for his errors.

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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 7. He and Tyson Barrie allowed the breakaway pass early in the first period. He let Virtanen slip by him for a second period one-timer. He chipped in on four Grade A chances on the power play, including Alex Chiasson’s goal. Part of a solid PK effort from the entire crew, which bumps up his mark one notch, and the same for all the other PKers.

Jesse Puljujarvi, 7. Solid shifts at even strength and on the power play all game. He had a good screen on an Adam Larsson point shot that Kris Russell almost scored on. He won a net front battle in the third to score Edmonton’s crucial insurance goal.

Leon Draisaitl, 8. The maestro of Edmonton’s power play, chipping in on seven Grade A chances with the man advantage. Some great passes, including sending in McMVP on a breakaway in the first, and also saucering a pass to RNH to kick off a dangerous power play sequence. Could not drain the puck on a wide open net on the power play early in the first. He made a lazy clearance in the second that led to a Grade A chance for Vancouver’s Adam Gaudette. He made up for the mistake a moment later when he stripped the puck from Quinn Hughes and powered in on a breakaway, but couldn’t beat Demko on a dangerous backhanded shot. In the third, his hard shot on the power play caused the rebound that Puljujarvi cashed in.

Kailer Yamamoto, 6. He fought his way to a breakaway in the first and put it off the crossbar. Combined well with Draisaitl through the game.

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Dominik Kahun, 4. Barely noticed him, not good for a forward. Not one shot on net.

Jujhar Khaira, 8. He’s playing with confidence, moving his feet, hitting, defending and moving the puck. Indeed, he’s never before carried and passed the puck with such assurance. Foiled on a breakaway in the first. Late in the third he ragged the puck on the PK like the Second Coming of Craig MacTavish.

Josh Archibald, 6. The refs handed him an iffy penalty for charging the goalie early in the game. But hustled all game and led the team with four hits.

Tyler Ennis, 7. A key man on the third line with his puck winning and handling. He made a great steal of the puck in the first and send in Nitty Gritty Dirt linemate Khaira on a breakway. He made a swell hustling, diving defensive poke-check late in the second.

Gaetan Haas, 6. He got a solid clearance under pressure on the PK late in the second, then another fine PK clearance early in the third.

Alex Chiasson, 6. If you want to show video to any player on how to position yourself net front on the power play, show them video of the master, Chiasson. He was rewarded for all his strong fundamental play there when he took an RNH pass and jammed home a goal in the second.

Darnell Nurse, 8. Such was his confidence, calm and assured play, he looked like Doug Harvey, the Norris Trophy-owning d-man of the 1950s Montreal Canadiens. He played 27:36, looking very much like a true No. 1 NHL d-man.

Tyson Barrie, 6. After allowing a short-handed breakaway early on, he fired in a power play shot that kicked off a dangerous sequence around the Vancouver net, with Draisaitl launching two Grade A shots and McDavid one at Thatcher Demko, but unable to score. A quiet game otherwise.

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Adam Larsson 7. Quiet game, no major mistakes at even strength, what’s not to like?

Kris Russell, 6. Nothing too good, nothing too bad. Part of that strong PK effort.

Evan Bouchard, 5. He took out Nil Hoglander with a hard hit. Otherwise a quiet game, which is what you want to see from a defenceman, if nothing else.

Caleb Jones, 6. He made a fine defensive stop on the PK late in the second, then blocked one shot and sprawled to take away a Pettersson power play shot early in the third. He fired in a dangerous outside shot a shift later. Is fighting hard to stay in the line-up.

Ethan Bear, 6. After an 11 game absence, he was back in the line-up. By the end, his coach trusted him enough to have him out in the final minute of a close game. He made a deft pass to advance the puck out of the d-zone early in the third, even as he was taking a hit. A moment later he ice the puck in solid fashion on a key PK.

Mike Smith, 9. Brilliant game. Did not let a goal in and made numerous stupendous saves. Looked sharp early on stopping a short-handed breakaway. Followed up with big saves off of Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson on Vancouver’s first power play. Next he came up with likely his best save off the first period, a sprawling block stop off another deadly Pettersson one-timer. He kept it up with a huge save on Gaudette in the second after a Draisaitl turnover, following up with three great stops in a single sequence, starting with a save off Travis Hamonic. Finally, he stoned Virtanen on a one-timer. The Oilers shut things down in the third, allowing not one Grade A chance, leaving Smith one Grade A stop with the game on the line short of a transcendent “10.”

At the Cult

McCURDY: Oilers have depth scoring! Oilers have depth scoring!

STAPLES: How to ramp up Yamamoto’s even-strength scoring

LEAVINS: Player grades in comeback win over the Canucks

McCURDY: Caleb Jones get an opportunity to draw back in

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Senators chase Rittich, rout Flames for third-straight win – Sportsnet.ca

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OTTAWA — Matt Murray and the Ottawa Senators have their longest win streak of the season.

Murray stopped 29 shots while Drake Batherson extended his goal streak to four games as Ottawa earned a 6-1 decision over the Calgary Flames on Thursday. The win was the Senators’ third straight as they improved to 5-2-0 in the last seven contests.

“I think we’re starting to build, I think we’re recognizing what it takes to win on any given night and how difficult it really is,” Murray said. “I think we’re starting to do the little things right the majority of the time and that’s huge in this league.

“If we start getting into a run-and-gun style game then we’re probably not going to have as good a chance to win. I think tonight was a good example of what it takes to win on any given night and now difficult it is. I love the direction we’re headed.”

Colin White scored twice for Ottawa (7-14-1). Erik Gudbranson, Connor Brown and Erik Brannstrom had the others.

“You know what? You never critique a win,” Ottawa head coach D.J. Smith said. “We found a way to score early and took the pressure off us.

“But there’s probably been four or five games of late that we’ve played better and didn’t get that result. It was just one of those games where everything went our way.”

Milan Lucic replied for Calgary (9-10-2), which was playing for the third time in four nights. And while the Flames came in having won three of the previous four meetings with Ottawa, they’re 1-4-1 in their last six games overall.

“It’s on us, it’s on the players. We’ve got to be better,” said Lucic.

It was the first of three straight games between the two teams in Ottawa. They meet again Saturday afternoon before finishing up Monday night.

“I thought that was Matt Murray’s best game this year,” said Smith. “He looked really calm back there.

“We hung him out to dry in the third period and gave them some Grade-A chances that we shouldn’t have given but he made the saves and he looked really good doing it.”

Murray was sharp in the third as Calgary outshot Ottawa 15-8 in the period. Overall, the Senators held a 31-30 advantage in shots on goal.

But Murray said his teammates performed solidly in front of him.

“We did the best job we could’ve staying above them trying to keep their chances to a minimum,” he said. “That’s a really, really dangerous team.

“The way we played in the (defensive) zone, we just kind of kept them to the outside. A lot of really good things to build off of moving forward until the next one.”

Batherson opened the scoring at 7:45 of the first period. David Rittich made the save on Tim Stutzle’s shot but Batherson fired the rebound past the Flames goaltender for his sixth of the season.

Gudbranson made it 2-0 with his first of the year at 9:27 as Ottawa outshot Calgary 13-5.

Lucic pulled Calgary to within 2-1 with his fifth 1:41 into the second. But Brown restored Ottawa’s two-goal lead at 4:39, intercepting a pass deep in the Flames zone and beating Rittich on the backhand unassisted for his fifth.

“I thought we did a really good job and responded well after that (Lucic) goal,” Murray said. “I like how we really didn’t sit back.

“We kept going and got a few more goals coming out in that third period I think that was huge.”

Brannstrom put Ottawa up 4-1 at 7:24. He blasted a rolling puck from outside the blue-line past Rittich, his second of the year and second in as many games. Shortly afterwards, Calgary made the goaltending change as Artyom Zagidulin got into his first NHL game replacing Rittich, who allowed four goals on 20 shots.

White slid the puck under Zagidulin at 4:55 of the third, for his third. He added his fourth at 14:46.

“He (White) was dinged up there . . . the last little bit and that affected him,” Smith said. “When pucks go in for guys all of a sudden . . . they start skating and they start making plays.

“He’s been really competitive, he’s been a great teammate throughout this. He’s playing well.”

While admitting Thursday’s victory was far from a complete performance, Ottawa defenceman Thomas Chabot said there are many benefits to winning.

“It’s good for everyone,” he said. “Everyone gets more confidence, everybody makes more plays, everybody is happy coming to the rink, everybody’s in a good mood.

“It’s just great for the team overall.”

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