Manor Sturm Working to Make Akil Thomas an NHL Player

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Four years ago this week, life significantly changed for Akil Thomas.

In a matter of mere days, he became one of the most recognizable junior hockey players on the planet, then had to shift gears before the celebration had even wrapped up.

On Jan. 5, 2020, Thomas scored the ‘Golden Goal’ for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. It forever cemented his legacy on the biggest stage possible for players under 20 years of age.

Yet, reality was already at his doorstep. As Thomas was being greeted with a hero’s welcome during a pre-game ceremony put on by the Niagra IceDogs just a few days later — he had already waived his no trade clause (yes, they exist in junior hockey too) and was on his way out of town.

The team that previously selected him 12th overall at the OHL Draft, and where he had played for more than three seasons, had traded their captain to the Peterborough Petes. He wrapped up his junior hockey career with 40 points in 22 games for his new team.

Later that summer, Thomas turned pro and has never looked back.

Nearing the end of his first season with AHL Ontario, he reflected on a few of the lessons learned and experience gained with the Reign up until that point.

“Not gonna lie, it’s been a challenge,” he told Mayor’s Manor in March 2021.

If he only knew what was ahead.

First, though, more from that conversation.

“It definitely has not been easy,” he continued. “It’s been tough. The hockey is obviously different. Points do not come easy at all. You can’t just show up to a rink and expect to get a couple points like maybe I did in junior. You really have to earn everything in this league. It matches exactly with what guys I talked to before coming into the season said about it. It’s been good for me, though. It’s teaching me a lot. Every game I try to soak in as much as I can.”

Three years later, not much has changed.

Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s not even remotely true.

A lot has changed.

Just three months after that interview, Thomas underwent double shoulder surgery – something he discussed in during a Kings Of The Podcast appearance while still recovering that September.

He eventually made his way back to the Reign in December, suiting up for 40 AHL games to complete his 2021-22 campaign. Things appeared to be headed in the right direction, as Thomas was arguably one of Ontario’s best players down the stretch. He scored eight goals in the final 15 regular season games and found the back of the net three more times during the team’s four playoff games.

Another summer of ‘putting in the work’ was followed by more bad news just 13 games into the following season. Thoams was required another surgery, causing him to miss the remainder of all last year.

Through it all, the Kings never gave up on him, and he was re-signed to a one-year contract back in July.

Now, fully healthy, Thomas turned 24 years old last week and his entire focus remains on simply getting better every day.

“I’m feeling good,” he said during our conversation on Saturday. “There are some things I want to improve on. I’m not 100% satisfied with my game.”

This was coming off back-to-back games against San Jose over the weekend, where he scored in each contest.

So, what aspect of his game is Thomas still looking to polish?

“I think I can score a little bit more,” he said, with that cool-as-a-cat look he nearly always has on his face.

When we later caught up with coach Marco Sturm and told him Thomas still felt he had more to give, Ontario’s bench boss flashed one of his trademark smiles and slowly began chuckling. “Yeah, that’s him,” he remarked.

In a nutshell, that is Thomas. Somebody who constantly wants to be better individually, as well as willing to do anything to help his team win — part of the reasons he was named an alternate captain this season.

“He’s great!” Sturm continued. “He understands his role and he works extremely hard. We need him, right? Especially with [Alex] Turcotte and some other guys out, he’s been great. He’s the only guy who’s plus — what, over 50 percent on face-offs? He kills penalties, he’s on the power play. He’s been great. I really like how he’s played of late.”

For his part, Thomas continued to talk about being even better. “I’m missing a lot of opportunities, honestly,” claimed the young Kings prospect. “Whether it’s maybe high-end skill plays, getting the puck through a stick or making a move on my backhand and pass, some stuff like that. It’s going to take some time. I’m learning as we go here.”

He’s also thankful for all the time his coaches continue putting into him. Thomas noted that he and Sturm have chatted quite a bit about his game over the past few months.

“I had a little bit of a slow start, overall. We had good talks, once a week or whatever it was; not too much, but just the right amount,” he stated, followed by a little laugh of his own. “We had good dialogue and I think that really helped me get on the right track here.”

Thomas also credits assistant coach Chris Hajt with helping to round out his game.

“Hajter and I talk a lot a lot about PK,” Thomas shared. “My ability to PK is a big attribute of my game, I believe. We talk every day. Sometimes it’s just about little things, areas we change or just to remind me of certain things. We have a good relationship and I think he’s helped my overall game, for sure.”

Sturm isn’t only focusing on how Thomas can score more goals for the Reign. He’s also keeping an eye toward his future.

“I don’t even know how many goals or points he has, honestly. I don’t really care,” Sturm declared, explaining how Thomas’ role in the NHL likely won’t come as a top-line forward. “I have to tell him sometimes, ‘Okay, maybe you’re not that kind of guy.’ If he plays for the Kings, they’re not looking for goals. They’re looking for faceoffs. They’re looking for [penalty] kills. They’re looking for you to be reliable in every situation. That’s what I want him to be. I don’t want him to be like [T.J.] Tynan. I want him to be like Akil Thomas, who does everything right and a guy I can trust. That, for me, is more important than anything else.”

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