- Editor's note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California's Sharks coverage for the 2021-22 season. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
The Sharks are -- gasp -- holding onto the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference entering Wednesday's action.
If you said the Sharks would be right there, nearly halfway into the season, for a playoff spot during training camp, that would've surprised a lot of people. If you said the Sharks would be right there, a week after "humiliating" losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings on the road, for a playoff spot, that might've surprised a lot of people.
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But here the Sharks are, 37 games into the season, ahead of more highly-regarded Western Conference squads like the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks.
Will they stay there? That's anybody's guess.
But I reached out to reporters for the Sharks' closest Western Conference rivals to learn about the competition's strengths and weaknesses.
I've excluded the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights from this survey. I'm assuming these five teams are postseason locks.
San Jose Sharks
I've also excluded the Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, and Seattle Kraken from this survey. I'm assuming these three teams are lottery locks.
That leaves the Sharks, Oilers, Jets, Stars, Canucks, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and Nashville Predators to compete for three Western Conference playoff spots.
The Preds, by the way, are on a five-game winning streak that has vaulted them to the top of the Central Division. I started this survey before their streak, so if you count Nashville as in, then we're talking seven squads vying for just two postseason berths.
Let's size up the Sharks' competition:
Writer Felix Sicard, The Fourth Period (@Felix_Sicard)
The Ducks will make the playoffs if ... "they get full value out of their top-six forwards, which means that Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras will need to continue to play at their torrid paces," Sicard told San Jose Hockey Now.
"Secondly, they will need their blueline to continue to perform in head coach Dallas Eakins’s new high-octane system.
"Thirdly, what they do at the Trade Deadline could impact all of this. Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, and Rickard Rakell are all set to be free agents, and what the Ducks get in return could have some effect on their playoff hopes.
"Lastly, they will need to get slightly less conservative while leading, as that has come back to bite them on one too many occasions so far.
"Essentially though, Anaheim just needs more of the same as their first 38 games."
The Ducks will miss the playoffs if ... "there is any drop-off in play from the top-six. That could really jeopardize Anaheim’s chances, as their depth forwards have been a bit exposed as of late. If the big dogs have a second-half slump, the Ducks are in trouble.
"The Ducks have gotten nearly everything they could have hoped for from their top-six forwards thus far. Of course, they would like to see more production out of Max Comtois and Rickard Rakell, but the likes of Terry, Zegras, Ryan Getzlaf, and Sonny Milano have been so good that any other shortcomings are nullified."
Who's better, Ducks or Sharks?
"Both the Ducks and Sharks are middle-of-the-road teams at five-on-five, but Anaheim holds a couple of noteworthy advantages.
"For one, the goaltending tandem of John Gibson and Anthony Stolarz both sit in the top 20 of Evolving Hockey’s cumulative Goals Saved Above Expected, while the Sharks only have one goaltender in James Reimer who is even positive in that regard.
"Secondly, although Timo Meier has been outstanding for the Sharks this year, it really seems like it’s just Meier and Tomas Hertl up front in terms of elite talent for San Jose.
"The Ducks are by no means a Cup contender, but they have more difference-making forwards than the Sharks do."
Taylor Baird, Defending Big D (@taylordbaird)
The Stars will make the playoffs if ... "Jake Oettinger [plays well]," Baird said. "The young phenom in net has essentially been given the keys to make his case for being the starter of the future he was drafted to be, with Braden Holtby there too if he falters. But if Oettinger can keep up his excellent play from the seven-game win streak the Stars went on earlier this season, he’s going to be a big part of why they’ll make the playoffs."
The Stars will miss the playoffs if ... "the lack of production outside of the Jason Robertson - Roope Hintz - Joe Pavelski trio [dictates] the way the season ends for the Stars. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin need to find a way to continue to contribute in a meaningful way if the team wants that ending to be a playoff berth.
"The other thing will be the future of John Klingberg. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent that hasn’t been able to get a contract extension negotiated.
"If the Stars are on the cusp of the playoffs, the front office will have a huge decision to make at the trade deadline: Re-sign their top blueliner and the player that makes the power play as effective as it is, or trade him for assets to restock the cupboards instead of letting him walk in the summer for nothing."
Who's better, Stars or Sharks?
"Well, that really all depends on whether you get Dr. Jekyll (the seven-game-win-streak Stars) or Mr. Hyde (the ensuing-five-game-losing-streak Stars) down the stretch here.
"The Stars are at a crossroads -- who are they, really? Are they the team that surprised the hockey world with a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final just two summers ago, or are they in no man’s land -- good enough to win just enough to take themselves out of a playoff position and not drafting high enough for an immediate impact player this summer?"
Jason Gregor, TSN 1260 and The Daily Faceoff (@JasonGregor)
The Oilers will make the playoffs if ... "McDavid and Draisaitl [keep it up]," Gregor said. "They are the main drivers, but Edmonton will need better goaltending from Mike Smith, or even Stuart Skinner to ensure they get in."
The Oilers will miss the playoffs if ... "they don't figure out how to eliminate the 10-bell errors. So far that has been their nemesis. They play well for stretches, but then gift the opposition a goal. They need to manage the puck better."
Who's better, Oilers or Sharks?
"Mainly the Oilers, due to McDavid and Draisaitl. Right now, the Oilers aren't playing up to their capability, but I expect they will figure things out. But the Sharks have my favourite player in the NHL, so I hope they make the playoffs."
Los Angeles Kings
Gunnar Nordstrom, Expressen (@NordstromGunnar)
The Kings will make the playoffs if ... "Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, and Adrian Kempe [can keep it going]," Nordstrom said. "Three veterans with the addition of Kempe´s goal scoring ability that finally has taken off this season. With his 16 goals, he is the best finisher on the team."
The Kings will miss the playoffs if ... "There's a lack of production from their forwards. The penalty killing has struggled until lately and have been among the worst in the league."
Who's better, Kings or Sharks?
"They look pretty even to me. Relying on a couple of players on the top lines for production, two experienced defenders and decent, but not spectacular, goaltending. It will be a toss-up who makes the playoffs. Advantage Kings, because of Quick."
Bryan Bastin, On the Forecheck (@BryanBastin)
The Predators will make the playoffs if ... "Nashville has a roster that feels like it’s overperforming, but the team is finally playing Coach John Hyne’s style of hockey – physical forward lines to force turnovers in transition, as well as a focus on shot quality," Bastin said.
"Juuse Saros will be THE key to this team in the playoffs – he’s moved back to the top-five in the NHL, and despite his early struggles, he continues to be one of the best in the league. Last season he was among the best at 5-on-5, but had abysmal PK goaltending – this season, he’s much better shorthanded.
"The other key will be Roman Josi – the defenseman is contending for another Norris Trophy as well as quarterbacking the offense and rejuvenated power play, and there may be no better transition player than the Swiss defenseman."
The Predators will miss the playoffs if ... "Saros is the most important player to this team, and if he struggles, Nashville will need to pick up the pace offensively in order to provide goal support.
"Aside from Josi, the line of Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg and Mikael Granlund will need to continue to produce.
"Forsberg is having one of his best seasons of his career – coincidentally in a contract year. Among players with more than 20 games played, Forsberg is 3rd in the league in goals per game (0.69). Duchene finally seems to be living up to his contract, producing at nearly a point per game rate. If this top line cannot produce goals in order to provide a safety net if Saros falters, this team will see another quick playoff exit."
Who's better, Predators or Sharks?
"Nashville is incredibly strong defensively, and goaltending and defensive depth are enough of a separator to prove the Predators are the better team."
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks will make the playoffs if ... Timo Meier and Erik Karlsson continue their renaissance seasons. They'll also need to keep Trade Deadline candidate Tomas Hertl, who's on pace for a career-best 46 goals. Can they also find some reliable secondary scoring from a Nick Bonino, Rudolfs Balcers, Noah Gregor, anybody? Offensively, they're a one or two-line team at best right now.
Defensively, San Jose needs to resist the urge to open things up too much. Even though their personnel doesn't necessarily look it, the Sharks are best as a defense-first team. Good team-defense also provides the ideal environment for James Reimer and Adin Hill to flourish.
The Sharks will miss the playoffs if ... they go off, as they have so often in the last two seasons, on their own pages, chasing offense at the expense of team defense, and in effect, leaving their goalies out to dry. They'll also need other players like Logan Couture or Brent Burns or Jonathan Dahlen to pick up the offensive slack if and when Meier, Karlsson, and Hertl go occasionally dry.
That is, if impending unrestricted free agent Hertl is still here. If the Sharks trade their star center, it's a white flag on this season, even if it might be best for the long-term health of the franchise.
Rob Simpson, Vancouver Hockey Now (@simmerpuck)
The Canucks will make the playoffs if ... "they survive a grueling January, continuing to get incredible goaltending from Thatcher Demko and very solid back-up work for Jaroslav Halak, and continuing to buy into Bruce Boudreau's systems and enthusiasm," Simpson said.
The Canucks will miss the playoffs if ... "the top-six scoring dries up. They already haven’t been getting enough scoring from the bottom-six, so they need some offensive balance. This team also needs to stay healthy."
Who's better, Canucks or Sharks?
"I think the Canucks are better than the Sharks," Simpson said. "They’re slightly deeper throughout the lineup, the goaltending is definitely stronger, and their special teams are improving under Boudreau."
Harrison Lee, Arctic Ice Hockey (@HLLivingLoco)
The Jets will make the playoffs if ... "they emphasize the right kind of offensive aggression," Lee said. "Dave Lowry is asking defenders to jump below the faceoff circles, while forwards press along the walls and in corners, but it's left Hellebuyck much work to do on odd-man rushes. Hellebuyck will likely be good enough to get the Jets in as-is, but the defensive work really needs an overhaul."
The Jets will miss the playoffs if ... "[their] defensive woes [and] Hellebuyck's slight step back this season continues," Lee said. "Winnipeg has leaned heavily on its Vezina winner, but the Jets cannot count on Helly to bail out every failed zone clearance. The team has also looked disorganized at times, overreacting to in-game situations with poor line adjustments. They'll need to work on that to maintain a playoff pace."
Who's better, Jets or Sharks?
"The Jets have the goaltending advantage and the better roster talent on paper, but I'm not convinced the tactical side is there. I suspect the Sharks may play the better hockey overall, with a few caveats."