MOSCOW – Russia's KHL playoffs get underway today, but one of the most famous names in the sport will not be taking part.
CSKA Moscow has more trophies on their honours board than any club in the world, and even if the post-Soviet era has failed to add to that illustrious collection, the Red-and-Blues remain big box office in the Russian game.
Until now, that is. With playoff failure confirmed some weeks ago, a club, which was once so successful it was blamed for deterring rival fans from showing up to see a sport where the outcome was a foregone conclusion, was left struggling to attract 1,000 people to home games.
A year too late
It shouldn't have been like this: the calamity should have been a year earlier when the club was abruptly forced to rebuild following the departure of head coach Vyacheslav Bykov and his assistant Igor Zakharkin.
With fears of financial meltdown looming, Sergei Nemchinov took over the head coach's role and watched as a host of experienced stars moved on.
From veteran internationals such as Vadim Yepanchintsev and Oleg Saprykin to young gun Sergei Shirokov there was an exodus of talent. At one stage 51-year-old Vyacheslav Fetisov had to sharpen up his skates to relieve an injury crisis in defence of the club he had been so successful with.
But Nemchinov's careful nurturing of young replacements suggested that the worst was over and come summer 2010 and there was real optimism in the Red-and-Blue corner of Russia's capital.
Money was found to bring in the experienced Metallurg Magnitogorsk forward Jan Marek and former Ak Bars Kazan title winner Alexei Badyukov, and a strong pre-season concluded with the team romping to victory in the Mayor of Moscow's Cup.
Big name failures
But the optimism was shattered in just 60 minutes as the opening match ended in a 5-1 drubbing at home to city rival Spartak.
Rubbing salt into CSKA wounds, while Marek was silenced by his Czech compatriot Dominik Hasek in the Spartak goal, ex Army Man Alexander Suglobov grabbed a hat trick.
From then on neither Marek nor Badyukov quite delivered the kind of return demanded of them, while young prospect Denis Parshin continued to struggle for consistent form among his flashes of brilliance.
And while Nemchinov could - and often did - rightly point to a squad which battled hard and rarely lost heavily, he also had to concede that it rarely managed to avoid going down to narrow defeats.
In the early months of the season coaches at KHL strugglers enjoyed all the job security of a bikini salesman in the Moscow winter - but Nemchinov kept his job.
And that commendable loyalty from the club's directors raised serious questions among the fans.
"Nemchinov seems like a nice guy, and he probably knows his hockey, but I'm not convinced he's really a head coach," CSKA fan Ilya said at the recent home game against Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Old enough to remember the Soviet era when the team racked up 13 consecutive title wins, he suggested that a dose of the old-style boot camp might have been what the under-performing stars needed to get them back on their game.
"Back then players knew they had to go out and win - or else!" he recalled. "This lot don't seem to face any consequences. At New Year we heard there would be changes, but it didn't really amount to anything."
But others blame the players. "Too many of them just weren't good enough," Alexei, 27, from the northern district of Petrovsko-Razumovsky said.
"I guess they decided to invest in a couple of big names and were left without enough cash to build a proper roster. And the goaltending was a disaster - letting Varulin go was a huge mistake and he was not replaced properly. That's why we struggled.
"[Canadian import Steve] Valiquette is like all the Canucks who come here - just not good enough. If he could play, he'd be back at home with a Canadian club, wouldn't he?"
Why are we here?
With so many fans deserting the team, both men were at a bit of a loss to explain why they had braved the Arctic conditions to keep watching the team.
"I guess it's better than sitting at home while my wife complains at me," joked Ilya, pointing out that this year he would be free of distractions when International Women's Day came around to dominate domestic agendas in households across Russia. "I want to get to a few games while I still can."
A season in a microcosm
On the ice the remnants of CSKA's squad - now without Marek and Badyukov after they moved on to Atlant Mytishi and Ak Bars Kazan respectively - managed to look competitive without ever threatening to upset their guests from Magnitogorsk.
And the opening goal, on 15:29, highlighted many of the team's problems.
After the defence got pulled out of shape, a routine shot from Juhamatti Aaltonen crept through Ilya Proskuryakov, leaving Alexei making 'told you so' gestures.
A deflated and depleted home crowd no longer offered a defiant chant of 'Verim v komandu' (We believe in our team) - belief having evaporated long ago this season - and the steady slide to seemingly inevitable defeat continued as Magnitka opened up a 3-0 lead.
But, as forward Vyacheslav Kulyomin pointed out in an interview with KHL.ru, CSKA has rarely been outclassed this season.
Instead it's been a steady, slow drip of single-goal defeats, often in overtime or shoot-outs: rarely bad enough to demand dramatic action, but never good enough to extricate the team from trouble.
And so it proved once again: a rousing fight-back in the final third made it 3-3 and suggested that a youthful squad, denuded of most of its already-departed big names, had the fight for a brighter future next term.
But after an overtime sequence of few chances, the game ended in a shoot-out defeat; CSKA's consolation point proved to be their last of the season after heavy defeats to Traktor and Salavat.
While most eyes now look to the playoffs, along Leningradski Prospekt it's the future of Nemchinov – expected to be resolved at a board meeting later this week - which is attracting most attention.