ATLANTA -- As the game ended, the dejected Atlanta Thrashers slowly skated off the ice with another loss.
Players quickly undressed and headed for the showers - all except rookie Dany Heatley. He stripped to his undershirt, put a hat over his wild, unkempt hair and sat at his locker, patiently awaiting questions from reporters.
"That's part of the job," Heatley said. "I enjoy it a little bit more when we're winning, and I just try to deal with it when we're losing."
There hasn't been much winning this season. The Thrashers are the worst team in the NHL, a distinction they've held for most of the three years they've been around. But the past couple of weeks have been better, with a streak of five straight one-goal games and a victory Wednesday over Ottawa.
"I just don't know what's going on," Heatley said. "We're in position all the time and we just can't find a way to get it done."
The 20-year-old left wing is one of the few bright spots. He's been the league's top-scoring rookie for most of the season, although teammate Ilya Kovalchuk did tie him last week. The duo play together on a line known as The Kids, and even though the 18-year-old Kovalchuk speaks limited English, they spend a lot of time together off the ice.
"It was a little tough at rookie camp, when we kind of got thrown together," Heatley said. "He's actually really good at it now. I have no problem communicating with him, on or off the ice."
Heatley was selected No. 2 overall by the Thrashers in the 2000 draft, then stayed one more year at Wisconsin before joining the team. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Heatley has shown he has the tools to be a star.
"He's the package, he's got everything," said Atlanta captain Ray Ferraro, a 19-year veteran. "Dany's a special kid. When he gets a little heavier and his body matures, he's going to be virtually unstoppable."
Heatley has been so good he's become a team leader, a guy even older players look to in a tight game.
"Dany's the kind of kid we've been looking for," coach Curt Fraser said. "He's the kind of player that just says, 'Hey, jump on my back and I'll take you there."'
Just where that might be is anybody's guess. With Heatley and Kovalchuk, Atlanta certainly has hope for the future, but will it be enough to overcome at least three years of losing?
The Thrashers jumped from 14 wins and 39 points in their first year to 23 wins and 60 points last season, but they have slipped in their third year. They're on pace for 18 victories and about 52 points.
Plus, attendance has dropped steadily.
"The team is showing a lot of confidence in me and Ilya by playing us so much," Heatley said. "We're still a very young team, and that's the way they've decided to build the team, with young guys.
"We're learning every day, and we're building for the future."
Heatley's learning actually began last season. He joined the team after the college season ended, and although he didn't play, he traveled and got to see what life was like in the NHL.
What he saw was a schedule more than twice as long as Wisconsin's, and players who were bigger, faster and much more talented.
"The NHL's the best hockey in the world, so it was a big adjustment," Heatley said. "But it was good to be with the team last year. When training camp started, I knew most of the guys and what was going on, so I could concentrate on playing hockey."
The strategy worked out so well, Fraser's hoping to follow it with other rookies.
"That was the best thing we could have ever done," the coach said. "Although Dany was the elite player in college, he got to see the other players' workout program and how they got ready to play.
"We wanted him to have a good start, and that was a key."
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