Akil Thomas chuckled as he thought about his old identity on the ice.
“Before,” he said, “I’d be more pumped to make a nice pass.”
“I need to start shooting more,” he said. “It’s pretty valuable at the NHL level.”
Since being drafted by the Kings in the second round in 2017, Thomas has undergone a transformation. The player who once classified himself primarily as a playmaker, instinctually setting up others before himself, has adopted a new mentality that has changed his game.
In the last year, the 6-foot, 177-pound forward turned into a scorer first. When he took the ice at the Kings’ El Segundo practice facility Friday, the first day of the team’s preseason rookie camp, the new role seemed to suit him.
“This [past] year, I wanted to be more of a shooter,” he said. “It paid off.”
Thomas, 19, comes into this preseason as one of the Kings’ most intriguing prospects. With another year of junior-hockey eligibility left – making him ineligible to play for the Kings’ minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Ontario Reign, this year – he knows he’ll likely return to the Ontario (Canada) Hockey League, where he exploded for 38 goals last season and is set to become the captain of his Niagara IceDogs team this year.
But first, he’s going to make a run at the Kings’ roster, hopeful his scoring touch might entice a team that last year finished with the second-fewest goals in the league.
“My goal coming here is to not get cut,” Thomas said. “Obviously, I’m not expecting to make the team, but I believe in myself. I’m not the player I was a year ago.”
The existential shift was initially spurred by advice from others. In 2017-18, Thomas’ 59 assists were fifth-most in the OHL and among the main reasons the Kings picked him 51st overall. But along the way, Thomas also heard a common critique from talent evaluators.
“Every team was saying, ‘You need to shoot more. You have a good shot, use it,’ ” he recalled.
So, he made it his focus last offseason. The result: he finished 14th in goals and fifth in shooting percentage (18.6%) in the OHL in 2018-19, elevating his status as one of the Kings’ best prospects – the Sporting News ranked him fourth in the organization’s pipeline, while The Athletic pegged him at No. 7.
On Friday, Thomas was one of the most opportunistic players on the ice. After jumping on a loose puck during a forecheck, he finished a breakaway with a forehand deke. Later, he fired a wrister from the left-hand dot into the upper right corner, then scored again on a shot from the high slot that hit the post on its way in.
“He seems a lot more comfortable and confident this training camp as opposed to last [year],” said Reign coach Mike Stothers, who is leading this week’s rookie camp. “Maybe it has something to do with, he had a great year.”
Thomas would love to spin it into an NHL debut this fall.
“[I] matured physically, mentally,” Thomas said. I’m definitely ready to show them that I’ve progressed and can play at the next level.”
Everyone to play in Kings’ rookie tournament
Stothers said he intends to get all 23 players and three goalies on the Kings’ rookie camp roster playing time during this weekend’s rookie tournament at the Ducks’ new Great Park Ice practice facility in Irvine.
“Everybody will play in all situations,” Stothers said. “We’re not going to get into specifics of certain guys on power plays and penalty kill. Whoever is up next is going to go.”
Before the team’s main training camp kicks off next Friday, the Kings’ rookies play Anaheim on Saturday, and the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday and Tuesday.
Some of the other notable players in the Kings’ rookie camp include 2019 first-round pick defenseman Tobias Bjornfot, 2018 first-round pick center Rasmus Kupari and 2017 second-round pick forward Jaret Anderson-Dolan.
“These guys all want to showcase themselves,” Stothers said. “We want to see them playing.”