Ontario Reign: Previewing Akil Thomas’ 2021-22 Season
LA Kings prospect Akil Thomas is looking to make the most of a late start to the 2021-22 season with the Ontario Reign.
Among the bright spots in the 2020-21 Ontario Reign season was rookie forward Akil Thomas. Taken in the second round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Thomas was second only to Arthur Kaliyev on the Reign last season in goals (11) and points (26). Unfortunately, Thomas is on the mend and will miss the early part of the 2021-22 season as he recovers from double shoulder surgery.
We’re likely to see the Toronto, ON native sometime around the holidays, so what can we expect from him? We’ll take a look at what type of prospect he’s been to this point and what the future could hold.
In his first two years in the Ontario Hockey League with the Niagara Ice Dogs, Thomas was exactly a point-per-game player, scoring 43 goals and 129 points in 129 games. After being drafted by the Kings, he exploded for 38 goals and 102 points in just 63 games in the 2018-19 season. In his fourth year in the OHL, he was traded midseason to the Peterborough Petes and scored a combined 84 points in 49 games. Clearly, the production was there.
However, there were questions about how skating and his game would translate to the professional level. In The Athletic’s most recent NHL Pipeline Rankings, Corey Pronman admits it “took him a while” to come around on Thomas, but he does list him as the 11th best in the Kings’ organization.
Even off of his impressive pro debut, I think the questions around his skating are fair. However, he brings an incredible work ethic and a very quick release to help offset some potential skating issues.
By now, everyone remembers his game-winning goal for Team Canada in the 2020 World Junior Championships, but take a look at this goal a little bit closer.
This is the first time he actually gains control of the puck:
There is virtually no room here to do anything. He’s stretched out, the goaltender coming for a poke-check and a defenseman closing in on him. Hockey is a lightning-fast game, which makes it all the more impressive when guys are, under these circumstances (not even considering the magnitude of the game itself), calm enough to be able to make a play and turn it into a goal.
Plays like this that come to mind when I hear the term “Hockey IQ.” It could be very easy to try a last-ditch poke at the puck to try and catch the goalie off guard – or even not be able to make a play at all. Little plays like this can show, there is a talented player here.
I mentioned his strong rookie season with Ontario. He was one of only three players to score double-digit goals, and Reign fans sure weren’t quick to forget these three:
What’s the common thread on the three goals? The release. The puck is on his stick and off before you can blink. The first one was him just joining the play, but the second is most impressive to me. On this goal, Ontario has pulled the goalie (note: Thomas is one of the go-to guys late in games), and Thomas is playing the “bumper” position, most often seen in the 1-3-1 power play formation, but it operates similarly with the extra attacker. I’ll note – generally it takes a very smart player to play this position as you have to be able to move without the puck, be available for passes and be able to plan ahead.
If you notice, right before he scores the second goal, Lias Andersson (on the half-wall) feeds Thomas in the slot. Thomas knew exactly what he was doing before he got the puck. He knew his feet weren’t in a shooting position, so he bumped it back out to Andersson to buy a little more time and space. The next time he touches it, it’s in the net.
Like his goal for Team Canada, some of those things are subtle, but if he operated any differently, the outcome would also be different (i.e., the puck not in the net). He’s a smart player, and consider what Reign Head Coach John Wroblewski said about him at the end of the season:
“He just kind of keeps rolling along, doesn’t ever make any mistakes, never gets stopped, and then he makes four elite plays a game that sometimes [goes] slightly unnoticed because it’s a deft play with a flip pass or just a bump play on the power play — something just extremely unique and heady.”
Wroblewski also acknowledged the need to improve the skating, saying, “a couple steps quicker, a little more power to his stride, he could someday push for a spot with Kings.”
It’s a tough break for Thomas, who has two years left on his entry-level deal; he’s going to get a late start to the season, but as Hockey Royalty’s Russell Morgan has reported, he is skating:
Had surgery on his shoulder. Still in recovery, but he’s been skating.
— Russell Morgan (@NHLRussell) September 2, 2021
Naturally, it will take some time for the young center to get back into game shape, but there’s definitely an opportunity for him to play big minutes in Ontario. Like others around him, he’s hoping to grab the attention of the Kings’ brass in hopes of a call-up to the NHL.
Recovery aside, perhaps the biggest drawback of him missing the start of the season is the other bundle of prospects getting a bit of a head-start on the season. But coming from a player who didn’t have a goal playing a 4th line role with Team Canada heading into that Gold Medal game, he needed just over five minutes of ice time to be a hero. He’ll make the most of his opportunity when it does present itself this season.