Kings prospect Akil Thomas loves to play hockey, he doesn’t care where or when. He just wants to be on the ice, contributing to his team.
Even with his busy summer schedule drawing to a close, exactly which jersey he’s supposed to wear next is more of an ongoing question rather than one with a definitive answer. And from all indications, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As he told us back in June, this was an important stretch for him because he’s looking to make the Kings Opening Night roster and is hopeful of playing for Team Canada at December’s World Junior Championship.
Thus, missing out a plethora of rest and relaxation these past few months hasn’t been much of an issue for the 19-year-old forward. He’s keenly focused on being better tomorrow that he was today. That’s been his outlook amid all the recent training and various camps he’s attend. This past June he was in LA, aiming to showcase his ever-improving skills for the Kings staff at their annual Dev Camp. A month later, he was off to Michigan, where he was looking to make a huge impression on the Team Canada brass – something he didn’t get to do last summer due to suffering an injury in game one of the 2018 World Junior Summer Showcase (WJSS).
Things were much different this time around. He suited up in three of Canada’s four games and received universal praise for his performance. With the Kings well-represented at the WJSS, he even had the opportunity to play against several of the club’s fellow prospects, including taking on both of LA’s 2019 first rounders – Alex Turcotte (USA) and Tobias Bjornfot (Sweden).
This weekend will essentially mark the end of his summer. Early next week he’ll rejoin his OHL teammates when the Niagara IceDogs open their training camp. He’ll likely play a few exhibition games too. Then, it’s back to Los Angeles for Kings Rookie Camp and the big NHL Rookie Faceoff tournament.
In preparation for what’s ahead, we caught up with Thomas for a quick recap and a look at what’s ahead…
MM: Let’s go with a two-parter to kick things off. First, when we spoke just before you came to LA for Dev Camp at the end of June, you talked about the differences in your mindset coming in as a returning guy versus the year before when it was your first time. Was it a similar thing going to summer camp with Team Canada this year, where you went from a ‘not likely to make it’ player to one of the guys expected to be part of their World Junior roster? And, along those lines, any thoughts about your dominant performance on Friday?
I would say it was a lot different this time. Last year, getting hurt that first game really made it short and not so sweet. This year, was good. I felt comfortable and kind of like a vet around the team. Even though I felt really strong coming in, I was wondering how my shoulder was going to be and it ended up feeling really good. I felt like I was physically dominant and felt like I could out-battle anyone on the puck. For me, to feel that mentally before I head into the season and into Kings Rookie Camp — knowing I did well at the Showcase — I’m looking forward to September.
As for the games, I think I play my best when I’m involved – when I’m taking the big faceoff on the penalty kill or the powerplay; and when I’m blocking that shot that kills a penalty. I thought I was really involved in that last game on Friday vs. Sweden. I really wanted to win, obviously. We didn’t play well against the Fins a few days earlier and we put our best foot forward in that next one. I thought we played a lot better as a team and the coaches depended on me that game, so I showed them what I could do.
MM: Including getting an assist without even leaving the bench.
[laughter] Right? It was actually Carson Focht’s assist. He was drafted by Vancouver and he’s a good buddy of mine. It should have been his assist, but apparently I got it. I’m not sure what happened there, but I’ll take it!
MM: Guys love to say they don’t read their own press clippings, when we all know the majority of players actually do. Coming off such a strong performance like you had in that Friday game, how hard was it for you to not take a peek at what people were saying?
In the past, I have looked; whether that was a good thing or bad thing. I actually deleted Twitter from my phone a while ago. I still have an account, but I don’t have the app anymore. That helps prevent me from looking at any of that stuff. My dad did send me a video of Craig Button saying some good things about me and some people were texting me saying there were some good things being said on Twitter, YouTube, and stuff. I thought that was all pretty cool, but that’s pretty much all I heard. I didn’t really look at anything because… that’s why I deleted twitter. I knew after a game like that I’d go and look. Maybe I’d even do that after a bad game too. That doesn’t work for a guy like me. I’m trying to stay off that stuff and I think it’s helped me a lot. It helps me to not get too high and not get too low; just think about the next opportunity to get on the ice.
MM: You were one of the guys who tipped us off to Aiden Dudas right after the Kings drafted him in 2018, so what’s your assessment of his performance at the Showcase and do you have any thoughts about some of the other Kings prospects who were there, as well?
I thought Aiden had a pretty good year last season, so I wasn’t really that surprised that he was invited to the camp with Team Canada. We were also roommates at the Showcase again. I seem to be roommates with him for everything. Overall, I think he did really well. He had a lot of looks and I’ve heard they were happy with how he played. I’m very excited about that and hopefully he’ll have a good start to the OHL season too. I think he will; and he actually might be captain of Owen Sound, so that’ll be another good thing for him.
Other than Dudas, I don’t have too many other items to report. I said hi to Turcs (Turcotte) on the ice and we had a little conversation afterward on Instagram. That’s about it. I didn’t get a chance to see Arthur [Kaliyev]. The Finnish defensemen [Kim Nousiainen], I actually cross-checked him in the face in front of the net. I didn’t know who it was at first, but we were just laughing afterward, though. I said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to. I was just trying to battle in front of the net.’ And Bjornfot played really well against us; I was very impressed.
MM: Do you ever feel like a ping pong ball at all? You’re in LA wearing a Kings jersey, then in Plymouth in a Canadian jersey, you’re getting ready to go to Niagara to have camp there, then you’re back here in September wearing a Kings jersey again…
Yeah, for sure, that’s exactly what I feel like I am! My NHL Draft year was probably the biggest ping pong year. I ended my season in Niagara, went to Russia for the U-18s, got ready for the NHL Combine, went to the Combine in Buffalo, came home, went to the Draft, went to Dev Camp after the Draft in Dallas, came back from LA and went on a little vacation, then was training back in Niagara before returning to LA, and then it was back to Niagara. So, last year pretty much prepped me for this past season. This time around, it felt a little more low-key and that’s pretty much my life now, so I’m used to it at this point. I also grew up moving every couple of years. I lived in Memphis, Oklahoma, Jacksonville and Orlando, so I’m used to being a ping pong ball. I think if I was stagnant somewhere, I’d feel weird, to be honest.
MM: In a few weeks, you’ll be back in LA for Rookie Camp and the NHL Rookie Faceoff. You guys didn’t have a good performance at the event last year in Vegas, going 0-3 as a team. You’ve shared with us how much more comfortable and confident you are compared to 12 months ago, have you thought about how that might translate to the tournament in September and what the experience might be like this time? Do you have any expectations of how this year might be different than last year?
I definitely feel more comfortable this time around. In the past, I’ve given myself certain expectations and it kind of made me think about it too much. When you think too much about something you don’t perform to your best ability. I think when I’m not playing my best, it’s because I’m thinking too much. So, in my head, I’m not creating any expectations for myself. I know I’m going to be better this time around because I’m stronger, more comfortable. I want to stand out this year and be someone they have to make a decision on and not just for them to say, ‘OK, go back for another year of juniors.’ I want them to have a conversation about me and think about me. I’m trying not to create too many expectations, though. I’m just taking it one day at a time and we’ll let my performance speak for itself.
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