NHL Core Strength: How Pacific Division teams found their best players

The Pacific Division contains some serious firepower at the top and two of the weakest teams in the NHL at the bottom.

This is Part 4 of a series examining how NHL teams acquired their top players and what we can learn from their team-building efforts.

For the purposes of this series, we'll look at the top three forwards, the top two defensemen, and the starting goalie on each squad for 2023-24. That can get a bit subjective, but when in doubt, 2022-23 playing time and point totals (or salary) all work as handy tiebreakers.

Previous articles: Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central

The Pacific Division might have the most variety of the NHL's four divisions.

This group of eight teams includes the defending champions, the best player on the planet and the two teams with the worst odds to win the Stanley Cup.

In the middle, you'll find a Los Angeles squad that keeps reloading, a couple of Canadian squads with aspirations greater than their 2022-23 results, and the NHL's newest franchise.

Here's a rundown of how the teams in the Pacific put together their cores:

Vegas Golden Knights

Core players

  • F Jack Eichel (Trade acquisition 2021)

  • F Mark Stone (Trade acquisition in 2019, extended in 2018)

  • F Jonathan Marchessault (Claimed in expansion draft, extended in 2018)

  • D Alex Pietrangelo (Free-agent signing 2020)

  • D Shea Theodore (Trade acquisition in 2017 for expansion draft considerations, extended in 2018)

  • G Adin Hill (Trade acquisition in 2022, extended in 2023)

What we can learn: It's unfair to compare other teams to the Golden Knights because they're built on the foundation of an expansion draft. Not only did that process yield important players that helped them win a title, it also gave them a clean cap sheet to build off of.

That allowed them to hunt expensive stars on the trade market and in free agency.

Eichel, Stone, and Pietrangelo were essential in putting the team over the top, and Vegas should be commended for its aggressiveness. At the same time, it's worth acknowledging that not all of their moves were available to other franchises.

Jack Eichel was a bold addition for the Golden Knights (Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jack Eichel was a bold addition for the Golden Knights (Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Edmonton Oilers

Core players

  • F Connor McDavid (Drafted 1st overall 2015)

  • F Leon Draisaitl (Drafted 3rd overall 2014)

  • F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Drafted 1st overall 2011)

  • D Evan Bouchard (Drafted 10th overall in 2018)

  • D Mattias Ekholm (Trade acquisition 2023)

  • G Stuart Skinner (Drafted 78th overall 2017)

What we can learn: When you are constantly picking at the top of the draft, you're going to unearth some stars, and it seems unfair to give the Oilers too much credit for scooping up McDavid when he fell into their lap. With high-pick misses like Nail Yakupov and Jesse Puljujärvi on the resume it's not even fair to say Edmonton has maximized its opportunities.

Even so, Draisaitl has exceeded expectations, Bouchard just had a breakout playoffs, and Skinner might just be a find — so there are some drafting success stories. Theoretically, this homegrown core should allow for plenty of free-agent activity, and the Oilers have certainly dabbled in recent years but Zach Hyman is the only big win there.

EDMONTON, CANADA - APRIL 01: Connor McDavid #97 and Leon Draisaitl #29 of the Edmonton Oilers have a conversation while awaiting a face-off during the game against the Anaheim Ducks on April 1, 2023 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Oilers haven't knocked their litany of high picks out of the park per se, but with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the fold, it hasn't mattered all that much. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Los Angeles Kings

Core players

  • F Anže Kopitar (Drafted 11th overall in 2005)

  • F Pierre-Luc Dubois (Trade acquisition 2023, extended in 2023)

  • F Kevin Fiala (Trade acquisition 2022, extended in 2022)

  • D Drew Doughty (Drafted 2nd overall in 2008)

  • D Michael Anderson (Drafted 103rd overall in 2017)

  • G Pheonix Copley (Free-agent signing 2022 and again in 2023)

What we can learn: The Kings have historically drafted well and they are still building around two players they selected back in the aughts.

More recently Los Angeles has been aggressive at finding talent outside the organization, though. Behind Kopitar, four of the team's top five forwards (Dubois, Fiala, Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson) are imports — with Adrian Kempe as the sole exception.

Sometimes a hometown core doesn't organically come to you and you have to throw one together. The Kings have done a good job of managing that, though the team's inability to find a goaltender is a sore spot, and the narrative around the team's drafting could shift slightly if 2020 second-overall pick Quinton Byfield doesn't find his way.

WINNIPEG, MB - APRIL 2: Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings takes a second period face-off against Pierre-Luc Dubois #80 of the Winnipeg Jets at the Canada Life Centre on April 2, 2022 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Big parts of the Los Angeles Kings' core have been acquired via trades, including Pierre-Luc Dubois. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Seattle Kraken

Core players

  • F Matthew Beniers (Drafted 2nd overall in 2021)

  • F Jared McCann (Claimed in expansion draft, extended in 2022)

  • F Jordan Eberle (Claimed in expansion draft)

  • D Vince Dunn (Claimed in expansion draft, extended in 2023)

  • D Adam Larsson (Claimed in expansion draft, extended in 2021)

  • G Philipp Grubauer (Free-agent signing 2021)

What we can learn: Like the Golden Knights, the Kraken's recent expansion draft makes them difficult to compare other teams to. One thing the team has done that others could mimic is aggressively extending its players when they break out.

That tends to be a wise course of action, and the deals for Dunn and McCann in particular look like they'll be team-friendly in the years to come — particularly if the cap rises steadily.

The Kraken have been aggressive in extending their stars before big breakouts, helping them build a solid foundation heading into their third year in the NHL. (Photo by Christopher Mast/2023 NHLI)
The Kraken have been aggressive in extending their stars before big breakouts, helping them build a solid foundation heading into their third year in the NHL. (Photo by Christopher Mast/2023 NHLI)

Calgary Flames

Core players

  • F Jonathan Huberdeau (Trade acquisition in 2022, extended in 2022)

  • F Nazem Kadri (Free agent signing 2022)

  • F Andrew Mangiapane (Drafted 166th overall in 2015)

  • D Rasmus Andersson (Drafted 53rd overall in 2015)

  • D Noah Hanifin (Trade acquisition 2018, extended in 2018)

  • G Jacob Markström (Free-agent signing 2020)

What we can learn: Calgary is a bit of an odd case because the team was forced to reinvent itself against its will when Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk didn't want to stick around.

Swapping the pair for Huberdeau and Kadri did not work as intended in 2022-23, but if the team's production can come in line with its underlying numbers the Flames might bounce back in the new era.

While there's plenty still to be determined for this squad, they deserve some credit for finding players like Mangiapane and Andersson later on in the draft.

CALGARY, ALBERTA - APRIL 02: Jonathan Huberdeau #10 of the Calgary Flames skates against in front of Lukas Dostal #1 of the Anaheim Ducks at Scotiabank Saddledome on April 02, 2023 in Calgary, Alberta. (Photo by Terence Leung/NHLI via Getty Images)
After disappointing in his first season in Calgary, there's reason to believe that Jonathan Huberdeau and the Flames can bounce back this upcoming season. (Photo by Terence Leung/NHLI via Getty Images)

Vancouver Canucks

Core players

  • F Elias Pettersson (Drafted 5th overall in 2017)

  • F Brock Boeser (Drafted 25th overall in 2015)

  • F J.T. Miller (Trade acquisition in 2019, extended in 2022)

  • D Quinn Hughes (Drafted 7th overall in 2018)

  • D Filip Hronek (Trade acquisition 2023)

  • G Thatcher Demko (Drafted 36th overall in 2014)

What we can learn: Vancouver found a number of foundation players in the mid to late 2010s and has since built around that group with imports. On paper that sounds fundamentally sound, but this team has yet to see much success with this strategy.

Pettersson and Hughes in particular are strong foundational pieces, but some of the team's biggest moves around them — such as trading for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland — haven't turned out as expected.

Vancouver's foundation also suffers from a run of notable first-round busts like Nicklas Jensen (29th overall 2011), Brendan Gaunce (26th overall 2012), Hunter Shinkaruk (24th overall 2013), Jake Virtanen (6th overall 2014), and Olli Juolevi (5th overall 2015).

VANCOUVER, CANADA - APRIL 8: Elias Pettersson #40 of the Vancouver Canucks takes a shot during the shootout in their NHL game against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena on April 8, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain/Getty Images)
Elias Pettersson serves as the foundational piece of the Canucks core, but a series of missteps around him have left Vancouver with an underwhelming supporting cast. (Photo by Derek Cain/Getty Images)

San Jose Sharks

Core players

  • F Logan Couture (Drafted 9th overall in 2007)

  • F Tomáš Hertl (Drafted 17th overall in 2012)

  • F Alexander Barbanov (Trade acquisition in 2021, extended in 2022)

  • D Mario Ferraro (Drafted 49th overall in 2017)

  • D Matt Benning (Free-agent signing 2022)

  • G Kaapo Kähkonen (Trade acquisition in 2022, extended in 2022)

What we can learn: This team's current core is a combination of leftovers from a more successful time and stopgaps as the young players that will drive San Jose's next competitive era wait in the wings.

The Sharks' decision to try and extend their window by adding Erik Karlsson was probably inadvisable from the start despite a solid 2018-19 playoff run. Now he's gone and the team's best asset is its cap flexibility, plus the high draft picks that will be coming its way for years.

WINNIPEG, CANADA - APRIL 10: Logan Couture #39 and Tomas Hertl #48 of the San Jose Sharks are all smiles as they look on prior to puck drop against the Winnipeg Jets at the Canada Life Centre on April 10, 2023 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl represent pieces of a bygone era in San Jose Sharks history, as the rebuild chugs along in the Bay Area. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Anaheim Ducks

Core players

  • F Trevor Zegreas (Drafted 9th overall in 2019)

  • F Troy Terry (Drafted 148th overall in 2015)

  • F Alex Killorn (Free-agent signing 2023)

  • D Cam Fowler (Drafted 12th overall in 2010)

  • D Jamie Drysdale (Drafted 6th overall in 2020)

  • G John Gibson (Drafted 39th overall in 2011)

What we can learn: The Ducks are a long way from contention, and it would be hard to see Anaheim as a model for anyone to follow as they are on a collision course with an eighth-straight season out of the playoffs.

They do deserve some credit for unearthing a hidden gem in Terry, but he's more of a unicorn than evidence that Anaheim knows what it's doing at the draft.

The Ducks have more present value on their roster than the Sharks, but they're still not at a point where adding Killorn made much sense for the franchise. The Tampa Bay Lightning mainstay — along with veteran defenceman Radko Gudas — are likely to languish on a non-competitive team for some time as Anaheim builds its way back to respectability.

Anaheim Ducks right wing Troy Terry, right, celebrates his goal with center Trevor Zegras during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Troy Terry has been a revelation for the Anaheim Ducks, who otherwise look as though they're a ways away from contention in the Pacific. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)