Heatley stokes playoff hopes

ATLANTA -- Who can say when a boy becomes a man, when a talented player becomes a leader?

Is it in the moment he leads his country to an unexpected championship?

Or lands on the cover of a video game box?

Or leads his team to a franchise-saving playoff berth?

For Dany Heatley, the answer may well be all of the above.

For the sake of his Atlanta Thrashers, it had better be so.

In a city where the rebirth of NHL hockey has been a difficult one, Heatley and, to a lesser degree, his sidekick Ilya Kovalchuk, have been the lone points of light in a murky hole. Entering its fifth year, the franchise has never challenged for a playoff berth. Instead, it has finished dead last in the standings three times and second to last once. Three times it has been the worst defensive team in the league and missed that distinction once by one goal.

Fans began to drift away. Ownership was (and in some ways remains) in a state of flux.

But the Thrashers' on-ice fortunes underwent a dramatic metamorphosis last season when iron-fisted Bob Hartley arrived from Denver sporting a Stanley Cup ring, four straight appearances in the Western Conference final and, for the first time in franchise history, a discernible defensive scheme.

The Thrashers finished the season 19-14-5-1 under Hartley and enjoyed a 20-point improvement over the previous season.

Fans responded to the spasm of success as attendance jumped 11% in the second half of the season.

As the curtain prepares to go up on what may be a seminal season in the history of the National Hockey League, the final one before a dramatically altered landscape is carved following the end of the current collective bargaining agreement, both the stakes and the expectations have never been higher in Atlanta.

"This is the year where we have to take that next step," said general manager Don Waddell. "I think the players recognize that too."

Beyond Waddell's job security, certainly in question, a competitive team is crucial to keeping a skeptical fan base loyal in the face of a potentially lengthy labor stoppage.

Fair or not, this significant pressure does not sit equally on each player's shoulders.

Fair or not, it rests first on Dany Heatley's shoulders and spills downward through the Thrashers roster, from Heatley to Kovalchuk to captain Shawn McEachern, to goaltender Byron Dafoe and defensemen Andy Sutton and Garnet Exelby and so on.

But it begins and ends with Heatley.

Perhaps that explains why Heatley and many of his teammates were churning up the ice at the Thrashers' practice facility almost a month before training camp started.

Perhaps that's why teammates rushed to separate Heatley and Sutton, the team's best defenseman when healthy, before they tore each other apart during one of these informal scrimmages.

"I think we're going to be more prepared at the start of the season," said Heatley. "That's why I came back early. I think that's why a lot of guys came back early."

The history of the NHL is dotted with can't-miss players and high draft picks already labeled disappointments or underachievers at the age of 22 -- Andrei Zyuzin, Aki Berg, Alexandre Daigle, Pat Falloon, Heatley's teammate Patrik Stefan. Even those considered among the game's brightest stars, Joe Thornton in Boston, Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay, endured critics and doubters.

At 22, Heatley has never failed to disappoint. He was the NHL's rookie of the year two years ago. He scored four goals in last year's All-Star game. He is now on the cover of AE's popular video hockey game box.

But for Heatley, the challenge now isn't simply to perform but to lead.

"One goal I do have is to get better every year," Heatley told ESPN.com on the eve of training camp.

And being better, the Calgary native says, means being better in all aspects of the game from scoring to accepting responsibilities off the ice as well.

"I don't just sit down every once in awhile and say, I've got to be more of a leader," Heatley said.

Given his successes and the expectations of the franchise, "it's a given," he says. "You're going to be more of a leader."

It is one thing to talk of leadership it is another entirely to provide it on the ice. Heatley showed this spring at the World Championships in Finland that he is becoming that player, scoring timely, often brilliant goals to lead Canada to a surprise gold medal. In the semifinal game against the Czech Republic, Heatley scored three times to vault Canada into the championship game. Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz, an assistant with Canada's World Championship team the past two years, says he noticed Heatley's overall game has matured.

"He's always had that offensive ability," Trotz said. "But he has a greater impact on the entire game now. He's better defensively. I just think his confidence level is starting to grow."

"What Dany did was really shoulder the responsibility of being the go-to guy," Trotz added. "That's the biggest change from last year to this year."

"When we needed a goal or we needed a big play Dany seemed to be one of the guys that got that done."

With a roster that boasted classy veterans Sean Burke, Ryan Smyth and Kris Draper, coach Andy Murray is careful not to overstate Heatley's role with the Canadian team. But he was likewise effusive in his praise of Heatley's skills.

"I was awestruck with some of the things he can do on the ice," the Los Angeles Kings coach said. "And I was equally impressed with how genuine he is as a young man.

"He was what a good young player should be, he was a good listener."

Waddell likes to tell the story about meeting with Heatley and his parents after drafting Heatley second overall in the 2000 draft and telling them he wanted Heatley to play another year of NCAA hockey in Wisconsin rather than making the jump to the NHL. Waddell figured Heatley was better off hockey-wise with $50 in his pocket in Wisconsin than $1 million in his bank account and living in upscale Buckhead.

"I would do the exact same thing again," Heatley said. "Mentally, I don't think I was prepared."

Waddell also likes to remind people that he predicted it would take five years for the team to reach the playoffs back when he was first announced as the team's first general manager. He will know soon enough if he has finally assembled the right pieces or if those words will ring empty and hollow as he is shown the door.

But from the crease on out, Waddell seems to have plugged or at least patched most of his team's perpetual holes. He has size on the back end and competent goaltending to complement two solid scoring lines. Of course, Waddell thought the same thing a year ago and the Thrashers went 10 games without a victory digging themselves a hole from which they never truly emerged even with Hartley's arrival in mid-January.

"That won't happen again," promised Sutton, who injured his ankle January 12 and didn't return. "It can't happen with the new system in here.

"In my opinion the opposite's going to happen. After 10 games we're going to be one of the team's everyone going to be talking about, 'hey, check out the Thrashers.'

"We see the possibilities."

Up and down the Thrashers lineup there are players like Sutton with much to prove. Marc Savard arrived from Calgary in November amid concerns he was selfish and hard to motivate. He finished with 47 points in 57 games. Garnet Exelby will be expected to evolve from a minor pro to a top-four defenseman capable of instilling some fear in opponents where there has been little to fear in the past.

"Goals are going to be scored against us. But maybe this year it'll be a little harder. Maybe teams will lose a little skin doing it," said Exelby, who played junior hockey under new assistant coach Brad McCrimmon.

Perhaps no one has more to prove than netminder Byron Dafoe, who signed as a free agent after missing almost two months of the season waiting for the right contract offer. He proceeded to have the most miserable year of his life. Out of game shape, Dafoe never regained the form that saw him win 35 games in Boston two years ago. He played only 17 games for Atlanta, registering a 4.36 goals against average and lamentable .862 save percentage before being shelved with injuries.

"Obviously it was a tough year for me," said the good-natured Dafoe.

Instead of returning to British Columbia with his family for the summer, Dafoe remained in Atlanta and shed more than 20 pounds. He is lighter and quicker than ever, he said, and determined to win back the starting goaltending job from Pasi Nurminen and answer skeptics who saw him as another in a long line of bad goaltending decisions by the Thrashers.

"I know what I've done throughout my career and I know why Atlanta brought me here," Dafoe said. "It's made me prepare more than I've ever prepared before. I just want the season to start so I can get going."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.