by Jared Shafran | AHL On The Beat
The Ontario Reign have now played more than half of their 2023-24 regular season schedule and forward Akil Thomas is one of only three skaters on the roster to appear in all 41 of the team’s games.
That’s no small accomplishment for the Los Angeles Kings’ second-round draft selection in 2018, who struggled with injuries each of the last two years.
After missing the first half of 2021-22, Thomas returned to play 40 games during the second part of the season. Then after a healthy beginning to 2022-23, he suffered another injury that ended his year after just 13 games.
But things have been different this season. After Ontario’s most recent weekend in Tucson which resulted in a two-game series split, head coach Marco Sturm called Thomas the team’s most reliable player. He’s proved himself in all situations, already scoring a career-high 15 goals with eight coming at even strength, five on the power play and another two shorthanded.
The 41 games are also a career-high for Thomas, as are his 30 points and 15 assists.
“He’s been outstanding,” Sturm said. “He plays every position and doesn’t complain. He does it the right way. I’ve liked his game and his process all year long. He lost a bunch of last season and it’s not easy to come back, but he’s been great.”
Thomas has also bounced from center to wing, filling whatever role Sturm has needed him in. It’s not the first time in his career that he’s been moved away from the center position, but as someone who’s played the majority of his pro games in the middle of the ice, he made the transition look simple, joining Alex Turcotte and Taylor Ward to form a dependable trio.
Although Thomas had a productive preseason that included a hat trick in an NHL exhibition contest in Vegas, the Toronto native went without a goal in Ontario’s first 10 games to begin the regular season which resulted in Sturm moving him to the right wing position on Nov. 10. Thomas broke out right away, scoring the first goal of the game that night and has remained consistent ever since, totaling 28 points in his last 31 games. During that time period, which has spanned close to three months, Thomas’s longest stretch without a point was just three games from Dec. 20-28.
The consistency of success has him not only improving his production on the ice but feeling better off it as well.
“I’m definitely little bit more confident,” Thomas said. “I’ve kind of found myself. One thing I realized my first time coming back was that it takes time to get your timing down, your confidence, mentally, just your habits and everything. Luckily, I’m healthy, feeling good and I’m definitely in a good spot mentally too.”
That mental confidence is hard to quantify, but it’s something that Thomas said is allowing him to go out and play without being too in his own head about things. Earlier in the season, he felt he was so eager to be a difference maker that he may have tried too hard and focused on the wrong things.
“Sometimes I kind of hurt myself just being too hard on myself,” Thomas said. “I’ve come back from injury a few times and I know it takes time. I came back wanting to limit that time so I could help my team win. I think when I’m playing at my best, I can be the difference between winning and losing the game for the team. Now I know I can do it and I just prepare for the game and I know it’ll happen if I just work because I have all the right habits down.”
That mindset has been reinforced by Sturm, who also simply wants Thomas to be himself and play his game. The coach said he’s had to remind Thomas before that he doesn’t have to do anything extra, just concentrate on his own game and that in itself will allow him to be successful.
“I don’t even know how many points or goals he has; I don’t really care,” Sturm said. “I’m not even going to look. What I care about is that trust factor I have in him and putting him out there in every situation when I need him to and that for me is more important than anything else.”
Thomas said that type of positive reinforcement has helped him maintain a great relationship with Sturm and the coaching staff, who he has lots of familiarity with. In addition to this being his second season with Sturm, the team’s assistants, Chris Hajt, who he works closely with on the penalty kill, and Brad Schuler, who helps organize the power play and other offensive situations, have all been on Ontario’s staff for as long as Thomas has been with the team. They know when Thomas is at his best.
“All the coaches have helped me a bunch,” Thomas said. “They know how I work and they know what kind of gets me going. I think they’ve done a really good job helping me get better as this season’s gone on. One of the biggest things I really like is when they recognize when I do something well and it’s kind of reinforcement for myself. It helps me understand what gives me success and I just do that as much as I can.”
Lately there’s been even more opportunity for Thomas with fellow forwards Turcotte and Samuel Fagemo both earning recalls to the Kings roster over the past two weeks. As a winger on Friday, Thomas posted his second three-point effort of the year with an even-strength goal and two assists. He then shifted to center 24 hours later for Saturday night’s game and added another tally during five-on-five play.
While his ultimate goal is to be one of those players getting a look at the NHL level, Thomas said he was happy for his teammates and looks at it as a win-win situation for himself with them earning a chance to play in Los Angeles’s lineup and him getting important playing time with Ontario.
“Obviously it’s good for them but it also gives me a chance to play a little bit of a bigger role with the Reign,” Thomas said. “Now I go into games knowing my team needs me a little bit more than they usually do. I think that honestly brings out the better version of me when I feel like I’m depended on and I need to do something to help the team win.”
Recent injuries to key members of Ontario’s lineup like Jacob Moverare and Andre Lee, along with the aforementioned call-ups of Fagemo, Turcotte, as well as Brandt Clarke, will have the Reign depending on Thomas to be himself and continue his offensive production as the calendar turns to February and the stretch run begins to heat up.