DULUTH, Ga. -- Dany Heatley never doubted his ability to score. The second-year Atlanta forward only wishes his leadership skills would develop as quickly.
Late Monday morning, less than 24 hours after being named MVP of the NHL All-Star game, Heatley was allowed to skip practice. He ran some errands, accommodated several interview requests and tried to rest his tired legs.
His mind was elsewhere. Despite the Thrashers' terrible record over the last 3 1/2 years, Heatley is convinced that the long-suffering franchise can make a surprising run at an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
"There's no doubt we're on the right track," Heatley said. "We just have to listen to our coaches, believe in what they're teaching us and hold ourselves accountable for mistakes."
Though Atlanta is 5-2-1 under new coach Bob Hartley entering the second half of the season, the team has only 41 points. The Thrashers, tied with Buffalo at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, are 12 points from the eighth and final playoff spot.
"We've made some progress, there's no question about that," general manager Don Waddell said. "But there are so many things we have to improve on defensively that we can't get too far ahead of ourselves."
Waddell acknowledges that Heatley, last year's Calder Trophy winner as the league's top rookie, and Ilya Kovalchuk, the Calder runner-up, give Atlanta the kind of nucleus it needs to build a strong foundation. But goaltender Pasi Nurminen, who likely will start Tuesday against Montreal to give starter Byron Dafoe another three days' rest, faced 71 total shots the last two games.
The Thrashers have an unsightly 3.59 goals-against average, worst in the NHL by over half a goal per game.
"All of us have to do a better job of holding down the other team," Heatley said. "You don't win in this league if all you can do is score a bunch of goals. We have to improve the way we defend the net. Everybody knows that."
With Heatley (22 goals) and Kovalchuk (28) accounting for 37 percent of the offense, Atlanta is averaging 2.73 goals to rank 14th. Waddell wants Heatley, the No. 2 pick in the 2000 entry draft, and Kovalchuk, the No. 1 pick in 2001, to think of themselves as hockey players instead of goal-scorers.
"We have two exceptionally talented players in those two guys," Waddell said. "Dany particularly is the kind of player you can see becoming a captain on this team for a very long time."
Only 22, Heatley was still buzzing from the superstars surrounding him at the All-Star Game. He learned Sunday morning he'd be on the same line with Jaromir Jagr, one of his longtime idols. But when Wayne Gretzky stopped by during the second intermission to encourage Heatley to keep scoring goals, the budding Atlanta star could hardly believe it.
Heatley's four goals in the East's 6-5 loss to the West tied the record set by Gretzky in 1983 for players appearing in their first All-Star Game and matched by Mario Lemieux in 1985 and Vincent Damphousse in 1991.
"I'd met him a couple of times before, but I never thought Wayne Gretzky would be coming by to tell me he hopes I break his record," Heatley said. "That was pretty special."