There are a few NHL teams that are usually good, as well as a few that are usually bad. Most teams, however, fall in between and can be good or bad in any given year.
As this is the last month of the regular season, NHL teams are in the midst of playoff runs. There are a number of teams vying for that 8th spot in both conferences, as well as teams trying to inch their way up the standings. Usually, the good teams float to the top, while the bad teams sink to the bottom of the standings, but this isn't always the case in the hockey.
"Parity" is a word spoken with disgust among many fans of other sports leagues - particularly fans of the NFL. It's considered a bad word. Parity, however, is sort of a new concept in hockey, since it hasn't been around for very long.
The NHL lost the the 2004-2005 season due to a lockout. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was up, and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) were at an impasse with the owners. When the lockout was resolved, the owners got pretty much what they'd wanted - a salary cap. Previous to that, the teams who had owners with deep pockets usually won. A lot.
The salary cap did somewhat even the playing field among the teams. What fans and media had been concerned about was whether it would restrict the number of trades. And, in fact, it didn't. Teams still trade players like 10-year-old boys used to trade baseball cards.
Since the lockout, there have been a number of teams that have consistently done well in the regular season, and others that have consistently not done well during the regular season. This has more to do with the philosophies of the general managers than anything else. Some GMs look to draft well and promote from within while making trades when necessary, and others prefer the quick fix to get them into playoffs or to get a Stanley Cup ring with little regard for the future.
Depending on the team, there are about 11-14 games left to go in the season as of this posting. This has been a weird season for many teams, so some have ended up blowing the trend they've established since the 2005-2006 season. Just looking at the standings, it's difficult to say why that might be for a few of them.
Previous to this season, the teams that have regularly finished in the top three spots - that is, won their respective divisions the most regularly - in the Western Conference are the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks, and the Vancouver Canucks. In the Eastern Conference, the top three would be the New Jersey Devils, the Washington Capitals, and the rest of the conference is rather scattered. The Pittsburgh Penguins, while often discussed and regularly on TV, have regularly stayed in the 4th spot in the Eastern Conference for most of the past six seasons.
The worst teams of the league are more consistently bad in the Eastern Conference than in the Western Conference. Overall, the Western Conference tends to be the better half of the NHL, for some reason. The worst teams in the league are typically the New York Islanders, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Atlanta Thrashers / Winnipeg Jets, and the Carolina Hurricanes in the East; the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Edmonton Oilers in the West.
Now, this is where this season becomes problematic. The Florida Panthers, for instance, have traditionally be one of the worse teams in the NHL. Up until now. In order to reach the salary cap floor, the general manager spent a lot of money on a bunch of random players last summer. Everyone expected them to stay relatively the same. However, they've surprised everyone by being one of the better teams for much of this season.
Washington is struggling more than anyone expected as well. They had been projected by many of the hockey media to win the Stanley Cup this year. But, they've had a coaching change, and significant players slumping, and are fighting for that 8th spot in the East.
Teams that have improved over the past seven seasons are Phoenix Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings in the West. The team that has declined are the Minnesota Wild. Everyone else is either holding steady or has fluctuated so that no one's quite sure whether to call them good or bad over the past seven years.
However, the quirky part of the NHL is this. Having the best record in the league at the end of the season doesn't guarantee anything. In fact, it can be a detriment. San Jose is notorious for having the best record in the NHL, but then losing in the first round of playoffs. Washington has done similar things in the post-season as well. So while being in the top spot of the division is something teams strive for, they don't necessarily hope to be the best of the best when the regular season is over.
The past Stanley Cup matchups since the lockout are:
2005-2006: #2 East seed Carolina beats #8 West seed Edmonton 4 games to 3.
2006-2007: #2 West seed Anaheim beats #4 East seed Ottawa 4 games to 1.
2007-2008: #1 West seed Detroit beats #2 East seed Pittsburgh 4 games to 2.
2008-2009: #4 East seed Pittsburgh beats #2 West seed Detroit 4 games to 3.
2009-2010: #2 West seed Chicago beats #7 East seed Philadelphia 4 games to 2.
2010-2011: #3 East seed Boston beats #1 West seed Vancouver 4 games to 3.
2011-2012: To be determined in June of 2012
As of before games today, the top three teams in each conference are, in the East, the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins, and the Florida Panthers. In the West, it's the St. Louis Blues, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Dallas Stars. But that can, and will, change.
If you'd like to see the full standings for this season and past seasons, then visit NHL.com for more.