EL SEGUNDO, CA — One year ago, Los Angeles Kings center prospect Akil Thomas was trying really hard not to screw up during the Kings rookie and training camps. But that strategy backfired—it prevented him from making a solid impression.
“Last year in training camp, all I was really focusing on was trying not to mess up,” said the 19-year-old, 6-2, 185-pound native of Brandon, Florida, who was selected by the Kings in the second round (51st overall) of the 2018 National Hockey League Draft. “As a young guy, playing with a guy like [superstar center] Anze Kopitar, I didn’t want to be the guy who turned the puck over, they score and we lose the game by one.”
But when a hockey player is too concerned about making mistakes, he fails to execute and is unable to make plays.
“Last year, I didn’t want the puck,” he noted. “I didn’t want to mess up, turn it over—do something stupid. I still feel like that, a little bit. But it’s not the exact same feeling as last year, though. I’m starting to get a little more comfortable and I want the puck more. When I have the puck, that’s when I can play my game.”
“This year, I want to show them that I can play with them,” he added. “I mean, those guys [NHL veterans] all try things to [make plays], and sometimes, they make mistakes. But that’s why they’re good—they take risks to make plays. I feel more confident and I believe in myself more this time around.”
Ontario Reign (Kings primary minor league affiliate) head coach Mike Stothers has noticed Thomas’ added confidence.
“He seems a lot more comfortable and confident in this training camp, as opposed to [last year’s]” he said. “He had a great year and he’s been named captain [of his junior team, the Niagara Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League], so you know what? He’s got a lot to be proud of and he wants to show it off.”
Thomas also noted that it’s not just about making plays. Rather, it’s also about how you make them, especially at the NHL level.
“You have to make plays at different speeds at this level,” said Thomas. “You have to make some plays faster and you have to make other plays slower and have a little bit more patience, like going back for pucks. Being a center in the defensive zone, you have to stay low and slow and be the middle option for the defensemen on breakout plays.”
Equally significant is that Thomas is about 25 pounds heavier, having added a considerable amount of muscle to his frame since last year at this time.
“When I was drafted, I weighed around 160,” he noted. “Now I weigh around 185, so I put on a lot of weight. I’ve matured, physically, over the last year, or so. I’ve developed my game a lot, too, compared to my second year in the OHL. I’m excited about where things are heading. I feel pretty good about it.”
“[Being stronger has given him the] ability to outmuscle guys in the corners,” he added, “Last year, at the rookie tournament, I felt that I was weaker than everyone else. I had shoulder problems before that, so I couldn’t train, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play in that tournament. But this summer, I felt really strong going into the World Junior Summer Showcase and that gave me confidence going into the  rookie tournament and training camp.”
So far, in the Kings 2019 training camp, Thomas has impressed the coaching staff, especially in two pre-season games, the first at Arizona on September 17 and on September 19 at Staples Center against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Thomas has also impressed Kings front office staff.
“I think he took quite a step from rookie camp,” said assistant general manager Michael Futa. “He’s got to play more competitively on a nightly basis, but he’s so skilled. I think, in Niagara, and in junior, in general, the top players get away with a little bit more. They’re not held accountable as much. But here, he’s held accountable at every level, by our coaching staff, by our training staff—by everybody.”
“He came in this year, and his first couple of practices—he still wasn’t as intense as he needed to be,” added Futa. “But his second rookie game was better than his first. He started to dig in more and his best day of practice was the following day. You could see the confidence, Then, although I wasn’t at the game [on September 17 at Arizona], I heard that he was exceptional.”
“When you get that kind of [upward] projection, that’s awesome. Now, when he goes back to junior, he’ll feel great about himself. but he’ll have to maintain that intensity level when he goes back to Niagara and that’s going to be tough. That team is rebuilding.”
As Futa indicated, barring unforeseen circumstances, Thomas will return to Niagara to start the season. But even though he’d prefer to stay with the Kings and play in the NHL, he understands the reality of the situation.
“This year, I want to push them to play me in at least a couple of the pre-season games and I want to play my first NHL game this year,” he said. “I know that the likelihood of that happening isn’t very good. But that’s not really on my mind. I’m a lot more confident. I’m going to try to force them to let me show what I can do at the NHL level.”
The big upside here is that, as Stothers noted earlier, Thomas has already been named captain of the Niagara Ice Dogs for the 2019-20 season.
“That means a lot,” said Thomas. “It’s my fourth year and I had a lot of good time with the team. I feel like it’s perfect timing and I’m excited.”
The upside is that Thomas will be expected to be a leader for his teammates, which should better prepare him to be a professional and to play in the NHL.
“He’s been named captain,” Futa noted. “The eyes will be on him to be a leader. The intangibles and the stuff that the coaches demand out of him here—he’s got to take all those good practice habits back to Niagara and be a great leader for the young guys there.”
“That’s a way he can, instead of saying, ‘Aww…I have to play another year of junior,’ he can use the year to become a better leader, make his practice habits even better and make his team’s practice habits better,” added Futa. “The way it works in junior is that he’ll go to the trade deadline—hopefully, he goes to the World Junior tournament. Odds are that he’ll be traded. Then you hope that he’ll go on a long championship run.”
“He’s got to take all the no-shortcuts-here attitude he learns here back to Niagara and not let any lazy habits creep into his game in junior.”
As a highly-skilled prospect, if Thomas can get a little stronger and add solid leadership abilities to his to quiver, he could exceed expectations by the time he is ready to make the jump to the NHL. To be sure, his journey should be an interesting one to watch this season.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center prospect Akil Thomas, shown here in Game 2 of the 2019 rookie tournament in Irvine, California, a 6-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on September 8, 2019. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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