Music versus hockey.
If you could choose only one of these art forms for the rest of your days, which do you choose? One would stay and the other would be violently sucked into a black hole of nothingness never to be seen or heard from again. Which do you choose?
The artist that is currently dominating my eardrums at the gym, my 1795 farmhouse, my truck as I drive around my small, rural town of Ellington, Connecticut, and during my 45-minute commute to and from ESPN is Sturgill Simpson. I hadn't heard of Simpson until I received the following text at 7:56 p.m. ET on March 10 (I still have the text thread, hence the accuracy). It was from a hockey-and-music-loving friend, Jason Burch, in Columbus, Ohio:
"I hesitate to put my perfect record on the line with the country genre, but I am hooked on the album 'Metamodern Sounds In Country Music' by Sturgill Simpson. Great voice, lyrically unique, and an epic cover [of] 'The Promise.' Give it a shot and let me know if it grabs you."
Grab me? It now owns me. After downloading the 2014 album that night and listening to it on my wicked smahtphone as I lay in bed, I sent Jason the following reply to his initial text above at 2:44 a.m. on March 11:
"It's 2:44 and I'm listening to Sturgill Simpson imagining drinking bourbon in an Ohio dive bar."
And Jason responded to my text after he woke up that morning with:
"I'll take that as a positive review. Burch's record remains intact."
I've often written that we can't see or hear every book, song, movie or game. Things -- like great new artists or music -- can slip by us. Life does not sit back in a 1-2-2. Life forechecks aggressively and noisily and badgers us into hearing Luke Bryan but missing beautiful things that can truly enrich our lives.
Music enriches my life in an emotional and spiritual way. I'm an energy freak and I like to be moved by sport, music, great writing and fun, beautiful or smart people. (An occasional energy drink/Snickers sugar-rush combo at 5 p.m. also ignites me for my night job or my night fun. I might have been raised by deer with a penchant for sugar blocks left by you humans.)
Simpson, born in Kentucky in 1978, slipped by me until Jason's text. Simpson's first album was 2013's "High Top Mountain," which was followed by his sweeping 2014 construction. As I devoured "Metamodern Sounds In Country Music" I learned that he was about to release a new album on April 15: "A Sailor's Guide To Earth."
So, for the past seven weeks I've been consuming the 19 songs from Simpson's second and third albums. (I bought his debut the day I wrote this blogumn.) This joyful music discovery has coincided with spring, a new life in a new/old house and the fertile canvas of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Music and sports. It dominates my DNA like it does many of yours.
So Sturgill Simpson and the Stanley Cup playoffs are currently inescapably married. Thus, this blogumn mixes Simpson lyrics with impressions of the 16 NHL playoff teams. The eight that are gone and the eight that remain. You know the drill. In alphabetical order:
"Been getting to the bottom of the bottom getting to me
Been holding up the mirror to everything I don't want to see
But it ain't all flowers, sometimes you gotta feel the thorns
And when you play with the Devil you know you gonna get the horns"
There is a lot of introspection in Sturgill Simpon's songwriting, and that's where Anaheim is after losing a disappointing series to Nashville. The Ducks lost the first two games and the last two games, which is surprising given their Big 3 of experienced and playoff-gritty players Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. One can't imagine that coach Bruce Boudreau will survive this bad start to a season and really bad finish.
"Woke up today and decided to kill my ego
It ain't ever done me no good no how
Gonna break through and blast off to the Bardo
In them flowers of light far away from the here and now"
This lyric is from what will probably always be my No. 1 Simpson cut, "Just Let Go." I have instructed my daughter, Malorie, to play it at my funeral/memorial when my clock expires.
The Blackhawks pay two players (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane) $10.5 million each in salary-cap money. That $21 million combined will always make it challenging unless the cap goes up, which the Hawks would obviously love/need. Players such as Brandon Saad will be missed in the playoffs going forward. Having May off will probably be good for this team in the long run, especially since the World Cup in September will make the season even longer next year for players who make their nation's squad.
The Blackhawks' window is still open. As long as Nos. 88 and 19 are in their 20s, life and ratings will be good. Filling the cracks with quality -- as the Hawks did with Artemi Panarin -- is the key to Cup No. 4. Enjoy it now, 'Hawks fans, because Chicago hockey has never been this good. And when the window closes, it will come crashing down.
"Says my son, it's all been done
and someday yer gonna wake up old and gray
So go and try to have some fun showing warmth to everyone
You meet and greet and cheat along the way"
"Turtles All The Way Down" is an instant classic. A story of an altered state, with no repeated lyrics. A quick musing about philosophy and longing and opinions. The kind of late-night conversations some us have when the combination of beverage and environment make the synapses in our brains fly like Jamie Benn clappers.
Dallas is a fun, let-it-fly team whose most important fun and fuel injector, Tyler Seguin, is sidelined with an Achilles injury. With a healthy Seguin, the Stars are a legitimate Stanley Cup champion threat. They are deep and experienced enough.
"I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say
I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be
But if you wait around a while, I'll make you fall for me
I promise, I promise you I will"
Simpson's remake of When In Rome's 1988 beaut is one of the best covers of this century. Emo's roots were in 1988 songs like "The Promise." In 1988, it was masked in a generic New Order design. John Sturgill Simpson gave it the full-country emo treatment.
Red Wings Nation is in full emo mode right now. They look at their team's cap space, the age and productivity of their high-salaried guys, and the state of their D corps, and they are concerned. The Wings are trying to reboot without tanking. That is very difficult to do, unless one plucks an unforeseen unrestricted free agent in his prime like a Steven Stamkos.
Detroit does have a nice, young group of forwards -- led by Dylan Larkin, who it views as their franchise pillar -- a No. 1 center who everything will revolve around. And the team sees Petr Mrazek as a highly competitive No. 1 goalie. But, it needs more. I would be tempted to strip as much salary as they can and play all the young, skilled kids next season and don't plug with older veterans. Play the kids in the last season of the Joe and see what you got. Don't worry about the playoff streak.
"Don't turn mailboxes into baseballs
Don't get busted selling at seventeen
Most thoughts deserve about two or three more
Motor oil is motor oil
Just keep your engine clean
Keep your eyes on the prize
Everything will be fine
Long as you stay in school
Stay off the hard stuff
And keep between the lines"
At long last, thanks to prudent and fortunate drafting, the Panthers are built for a long run of success, which will finally show the long-term viability of the franchise in South Florida. In 2013 and 2014, the Panthers selected Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad in back-to-back drafts. In today's NHL, you really can't do better than that. Two high-character, large-talent, large-human savages.
A young, future franchise goalie is the next step along with another elite offensive player. With this young team, the best winter weather in the NHL and no state income tax, the Panthers should be able to lure unrestricted free agents without overpaying them.
"That old man upstairs, He wears a crooked smile
Staring down on the chaos he created
He said son if you ain't having fun just wait a little while
Momma's gonna wash it all away
And she thinks mercy's overrated"
The Kings are an interesting lot, from Darryl Sutter's crooked smile to Anze Kopitar's quiet brilliance to Drew Doughty's childlike exuberance. Like the Blackhawks, the window remains open -- but their important forwards are hitting their 30s and Dustin Brown's cap number is a $5.8 million drag. Then again, every team is going to have one or two of those. The extra month of rest is better than losing in the finals, when it's Cup or bust. Also like Chicago, it's still the best era it's ever been to be a Kings fan.
"Bone break and heals
Oh, but heartaches can kill
From the inside, so it seems
Oh, I'm telling you it's all a dream"
"Breakers Roar" is right there with "Oh Sarah" as my favorite cut on the new Sturgill Simpson record. Effortless excellence. Nothing comes easy for the Wild. As an organization they are trying hard, and their fan base roots enthusiastically and craves a championship. As the big names hit age 30, the 20-somethings will have to keep doing military presses on their ceilings. Can Charlie Coyle become a 30-goal guy? It looks like it. Can Mikael Granlund get out of 40-point land and reach 60? Not sure. The Wild still have the heavyweight Blackhawks and Kings in front of them as well as the Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes and Winnipeg Jets, who keep adding young, big-time assets. Wild fans hope they aren't stuck in the middle. Again.
"Well now Lord if you can hear me, won't you throw a damn dog a bone
Cause if the Devil shows up with a better deal, this old soul's going down"
It's hard to get too deep when discussing the crux of these playoff games. It's such a game of inches. A bounce here. A post there. Most teams can envision a scenario in which they can go all the way. They believe in each other. They fight for each other.
Hockey is a very hard game played by hard men. It's often all a blur. A second-to-second grind. It all starts and the next thing you know, you're shaking hands at center ice. At times it all just kind of hits you there. "Holy crap, we won." On to the next one. Nashville vs. San Jose.
"Sell the kids for food
Weather changes moods
Spring is here again
This cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom" is haunting and beautiful with killer horns near the end that make it soar. Simpson was 13 when Nevermind was released in September 1991 and he said it was like a bomb went off in his Kentucky bedroom when he first listened to it.
The Islanders' mood is giddy right now. They have a superstar in John Tavares. If you've read stuff in this space before, you know I've gushed about Tavares since he first entered the NHL, in 2010. He was my pick for MVP last season. He is carrying this franchise on his back. He is a diligent, hard-working, Hall of Fame talent whose contract is up the year after next, when he'll be an unrestricted free agent who is just shy of 28. If the Islanders are to beat the Lightning, Tavares will need some help. Tampa Bay is a better team, but the Islanders have the best player. Help your boy out.
"One day you wake up
And this life will be over
Every party must break up
For burdens to shoulder
We're dying to live
Living to die
No matter what you believe"
Hockey is the most emotional and reactionary sport, but it still feels like the Rangers are ready for a sea change. They had a Stanley Cup window that seems to be closing a little but is still short of completely shut. From their goalie on out, they have big cap numbers and they are paying for that offensively, especially in the postseason. They are out of balance and need to fix that. But there is still a lot of good here and, like the Red Wings, they might need to go young for a year to figure out where the organization goes from here.
"There will be nights that go on forever
Like you're long-lost at sea
Never to be found
Just know in your heart
That we're always together
And long after I'm gone
I'll still be around
Cause our bond is eternal"
Ed Snider was such a force of nature and a presence in Philadelphia that it's still hard for the Flyers and their fans to imagine life without him as the team's owner. You have to be a billionaire to get into the ownership game now. Snider mortgaged his house to give birth to the Flyers in the 1960s. The Flyers and everything around them -- the TV network, arena real estate, etc. -- is what made Snider rich, and he never forgot the players who helped make that happen.
Most owners had already earned their millions from pizza or the Internet or hedge funds or Dad. Snider wanted to repay the guys who played for him and the fans who bought tickets, all of whom directly fed his fortune. That's why the Flyers have always generally been good. Those emotions sometimes led to trades and high-priced unrestricted free-agent signings in Philly.
Now, as general manager Ron Hextall focuses on getting younger and deeper through draft picks, the Flyers are in good position for a run if they can find the right goalie, Claude Giroux's offensive erosion levels off and Jakub Voracek doesn't become an $8 million cap bust. Snider is gone, but the Flyers are in good shape going forward.
"She said if there's something I should know, then tell me now
Before I go and give my heart away
So I can get on with my life
You can go on with your strife
Wish you'd speak the words, those eyes are trying to say"
When Simpson sings the penultimate verse to his song, "Oh Sarah," my eyes get wet from an emotional burst. You don't hear songs like this on your pop country music stations. It would be like Sidney Crosby playing in a beer-league game. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Penguins are on an elite run. Obviously, it's fueled by the best player in the game playing at a high level. The Penguins' season was turned around first by the Mike Sullivan hire. This was my Twitter response when I was asked about the hire back in December by Ed:
I like Mike Sullivan a lot. He has a booming/authoritative voice. Lots of experience. Lots of passion. He'll do well https://t.co/WHmpVty0U6— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) December 12, 2015
Sullivan was then handed Trevor Daley, whose play transformed the Penguins on the back end. I don't know who in the Pittsburgh organization identified Daley as a guy who would help, but he has been the perfect player for this team.
Also, Kris Letang played at a Norris Trophy top-five guy level and a former weakness of the team, the defensemen, was neutralized as Crosby began to take off. The Penguins now have a pretty balanced roster with deep goaltending and stars in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Kessel has played hard all season and, once again, didn't miss a game. He's played in every game for six consecutive seasons. And he continues to produce during the postseason. He has 16 goals, 11 assists and 27 points in 27 career playoff games.
"Through all these Earthly trials of sorrow
Through all these days of doubt and sin
Through all these eternal nights with no tomorrow
Gotta stay on the straight and narrow and find a little light within"
Some of the light for the Sharks comes from putting a "C" on Joe Pavelski's chest. The seventh-rounder didn't miss a game for the fifth consecutive season, scored 38 goals and lifted the burden off Joe Thornton (82 points playing in all 82 games) and Patrick Marleau (7 consecutive seasons without missing a game) so that they could just go out and play.
I spent some time around Pavelski at Blake Geoffrion's charity event last summer in Madison, Wisconsin, and came away with such a good impression that I made the Sharks my surprise team pick before the season. I'm still very bullish on them. Sometimes you can just observe someone and quickly realize they will be successful.
"How I wish somebody'd make these voices go away
Seems they're always talking but they don't have much to say
Well a picture's worth a 1,000 words but a word ain't worth a dime
We all know they'll go on talking til the end of time"
This is from a Simpson song called "Voices." Let's face it, the Blues have been hearing lots of voices from the past. Voices of doubt. But, when you plug in a beast such as Vladimir Tarasenko, it stuffs socks in the piehole of a doubter. Tarasenko was the 16th pick from the ridiculously deep 2010 draft. Redo that draft today and Tarasenko or Seguin would go No. 1. When you get that fortune, it can take your franchise places it hasn't been before.
"Went to the bank to get my dough I don't care where I go
Gonna push this rig 'til I push that girl out of my mind
If somebody wants to know what's become of this so and so
Tell 'em' I'm somewhere looking for the end of that long white line"
Steven Stamkos' swan song in Tampa Bay involves an interesting set of circumstances. Obviously, the deep Lightning don't want to affect their long-term window by giving Stamkos a huge cap number that would invariably hurt Tampa Bay's depth down the road. And so the Lightning are playing out the Stamkos string. Add an ailment (a blood clot) and an added mystery of "can he return and help us win a Stanley Cup?" has been introduced. Enter Jonathan Drouin! It's all so rich in Tampa right now.
"A little happiness, a little love was all I wanted
Sure as Hell thought I'd found it but I was wrong
She left my heart feeling taunted and my memories all haunted
But it's her I have to thank for all my songs."
Alex Ovechkin hasn't even played in a conference finals, much less played for or won a Stanley Cup. This is his best chance. This is the best team the Capitals have ever iced. And now the Blackhawks and Kings are out. It all points to this being Ovechkin's time at long last.