Akil Thomas, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
Position: Center/Right Wing
Age on Draft Day: 18.48 Years Old
Height/Weight: 5’11.25, 177 pounds
2017-2018 Stats (Including Playoffs): 78 GP, 27 G, 65 A, 42 PIM, +3
NHL Central Scouting: 15th (North American Skaters)
Future Considerations: 17th
Craig Button (TSN) (March): 20th
ISS Hockey: 27th
HockeyProspect.com (March): (Not top-31)
Slowly but surely, Florida is starting to produce a solid crop of hockey players. Akil Thomas grew up in Florida, where his father played minor league hockey. His family moved to Toronto when he was 11, however.
Thomas is a tremendous skater. Perhaps this is strange, but the aspect of Thomas’ game that immediately stood out to me within minutes of my first viewing was his crossovers. He generates incredible power with his first couple of strides and is able to turn and blow past players. Here are a few examples I clipped from this past season.
Here’s another situation where that kind of burst of acceleration can create offense.
Thomas gets a well-deserved assist on this play, but it has nothing to do with the pass. He blows through the neutral zone past two Owen Sound players. Had Thomas not been there, Friend would have played a tight gap on the puck carrier (Kirill Maksimov). But because Thomas drives the middle lane, Friend is forced to back off. Thomas’ speed creates the room for Maksimov to shoot. That’s the kind of play from Thomas that won’t end up on traditional highlight reels, but will earn him heavy praise in the film room the next day.
Thomas is a high-end playmaker. He possesses poise on the puck, waiting to find the right passes and rarely forcing plays that aren’t there. On Niagara’s power play he played along the half boards and did a superlative job of distributing the puck to the point men.
One of the most frustrating occurrences, when a team has control of the puck in the offensive zone, is when a player shoots junk and allows the goaltender to force a whistle. Thomas does a good job of shooting low, hard shots that create rebounds and keep plays alive. In the process, he picks up a number of assists.
Thomas averaged 0.46 primary assists per game, which was good for third among U18 forwards in the OHL. It’s a number that ranks higher than what Nick Suzuki and Morgan Frost, now considered two of the top playmaking center prospects in hockey, produced in their draft season. However, Thomas is notably older than both were as well.
It’s a mixed bag for him as a shooter, though. Isolating for his shot, he reminds me of Derek Stepan, sort of, in that he can roof a pretty hard wrist shot if given time and space to get off the shot on his own terms.
But as he moves on to pro hockey, and eventually maybe the NHL, he won’t be afforded the same time and space. Not as frequently, at least. When it comes to getting off a quick release, he lacks the poise to finish. Here are a few examples from my viewings where he clearly shows this lack of finishing ability off of quick passing sequences. This is an area where I think he could work with a skills coach on improving.
Defensively, Thomas is strong. He’s not going to “wow” you in any particular way, but he covers his assignments, checks his man, and battles along the boards. He was a go-to penalty killer for Niagara Head Coach Billy Burke. Not many 17-year-old centers in the OHL get tough assignments like Thomas, but he did a more than respectable job in the role.
Thomas is an interesting player. On the one hand, he’s not an enigma. Even on nights where he’s not getting on the scoresheet, he’s doing the job asked of him away from the puck. At the same time, though, it feels like he’s not being assertive enough. There are games I watched where he was far too passive. Thomas is fast, smart with the puck, and hardly undersized. He should demand the puck more and have the confidence to make big plays. I showed how quickly he can push up the ice in the first few clips. He should be shoving it down the opposition’s throats like that more often.
The flip side of that, though, is that maybe the best is yet to come for Thomas. If the right coaches can push him to play with more arrogance, then maybe there’s another level to his game.
There are available players who have a higher upside than Thomas. There are also available players who are more polished at the moment. In combination, though, I think Thomas offers a really enticing package. On a mediocre team in which he was the leading scorer, Thomas already put up very good numbers - 81 points in 61 regular season OHL games, though it should be noted that he had a high number of secondary assists. He also has already earned the coach’s trust in tough, perilous assignments. There is certainly reason to believe he could be a top-six playmaking forward, either at center or on the wing, and if not he’s a pretty good bet as a bottom-six checker as well.
Will he be around for the Rangers at 26 or 28? If I was forced to guess I’d say no, but we’re at the point in the draft where every team’s lists will look radically different and almost anything goes.
A more important distinction is that this is the starting point for where I would look to trade down. It’s not that Thomas, or any of the other remaining players, are not good prospects; they are. However, once my top-17 players are taken, it becomes a scenario where, in my opinion, quantity surpasses quality. If that’s the case, the Rangers would be wise to move down a few spots pick up an extra second- or early third-round pick if at all possible.
What Others Have Said
Niagara IceDogs Head Coach Billy Burke (via National Post):
“Sometimes I need to remind myself he’s just 17, in his second year, but he’s a leader for us. He’s got to be our smartest player. His 200-foot game is outstanding.”