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Ducks look like an NHL playoff lock, Kings are nearly there

Kings might not look like a playoff team right now, but they are just a point behind a spot

Kings Coach Darryl Sutter painted a vivid picture when asked last week about his players' struggles to defend their championship.

"They have to keep understanding and listening to what I'm telling them about how tough it is," he said. "The train has got to be a work train, not the Stanley Cup train. The Stanley Cup train was last year and some guys just have to get off that train."

With the Kings sagging to ninth in the West at the All-Star break, it may seem the Stanley Cup train has left the station. But they will have precedent on their side when the season resumes Tuesday.

In each season from 2005-06 through 2013-14 (excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) at least one but no more than three teams made the playoffs after being outside a qualifying spot at the All-Star or Olympic break. The Kings did it in 2010-11, making the playoffs after being one point out at the All-Star break. It should be noted that the 2010 and 2014 Olympic breaks were about two weeks later — and nearly two weeks longer — than All-Star breaks during that span.

Center Anze Kopitar said the Kings can't rely only on their resilience and the memory of winning the Cup in 2012 as the No. 8 seed.

"You want to build up your game up until the playoffs. Right now we realize that we're not playing good hockey and we're going to have to pick it up to make it," he said. "That being said, I think we're one point out of a playoff spot so it's not all that bad."

Here's a look at who's in what kind of shape as the season resumes:

IN: The Ducks (31-10-6 for a league-best 68 points) are 12 points ahead of second-place San Jose in the Pacific Division. They've overcome injuries and illnesses and have depth up the middle, thanks to Ryan Kesler. Nashville might be vulnerable while goalie Pekka Rinne recovers from a knee injury, but the Predators should still get a top-three spot in the Central Division. St. Louis and Chicago (5-5-0 before the break) also are pretty close to locks.

Looking at the East, Tampa Bay, Detroit (24th straight playoff trip), Montreal and the New York Islanders appear to be playoff bound. Yes, the Islanders.

NEARLY THERE: The San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks, though each team won only five of its last 10 games before the break. And you have to think the Kings will rediscover their resolve — or acquire an experienced defenseman.

In the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins have too much talent to miss, and the New York Rangers are hitting stride — and have games in hand on the Metropolitan Division leaders. Current wild-card place-holders Washington and Boston have opened a gap between them and their pursuers.

MAYBE: The Winnipeg Jets looked solid in winning seven of their last 10. The Calgary Flames are hoping Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are too young to feel playoff-race pressure. Colorado isn't as good defensively as the teams it's chasing.

OUT: The Dallas Stars are inconsistent and the Minnesota Wild has been thoroughly disappointing. Neither has shown signs it can sustain success. Florida has had good spurts but is a season away from a playoff berth. Ottawa, Toronto and Philadelphia have some major restructuring ahead. Columbus doesn't have enough depth.

FAR OUT: The Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers are the main candidates to start trading potential free agents for draft picks or prospects. New Jersey can't be the NHL's oldest team again. Carolina is likely to soon be a seller. The Buffalo Sabres lead the Connor McDavid sweepstakes and must hope the draft lottery goes their way.

Olympian task

Commissioner Gary Bettman said last weekend the NHL and NHL Players' Assn. haven't decided whether players will participate in the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. If NHL players don't go, they might not return to future Olympics.

"I think the league and the players' association realize that if you step back, you can't go back and forth," said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey. "The International Ice Hockey Federation wants NHL players in the Games. They want it to be the best tournament…. But we can't wait until the last year of the quadrennium to make that decision."

Players want to participate but owners dislike long Olympic breaks and the NHL and NHLPA figure to profit more off the just-announced 2016 World Cup than the Olympics because they retained the World Cup's commercial rights.

If NHL players don't go to South Korea, European nations can draw on domestic leagues. Ogrean said the U.S. "might have to take a creative approach." That could mean sending college kids, leaving NBC to play up parallels with the 1980 "Miracle on ice" team. Using junior-level players seems unlikely.

"There's some different possibilities," Ogrean said, "and that's why if NHL players are not going to go, we need to know in 2015 or 2016, not the year before."

Slap shots

Goaltender Martin Brodeur, who extended his leave from the St. Louis Blues to two weeks, is expected to decide his future in the next few days…. Per NHL policy, Sidney Crosby will miss Pittsburgh's game against Winnipeg on Tuesday because he cited an injury when he withdrew from the All-Star team but didn't miss his team's last game before the break. He will be there in a way: the Penguins are giving away a Crosby bobblehead that night.

Final All-Star note: Columbus did a fine job as host, but the game was a 29-goal blur. "You feel bad for the goalies with that many goals but the fans love it and it looked like they were having fun," Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos said. "It was great to see. They had been waiting a couple years for this game. They did it right."

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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