Akil Thomas taking charge, stepping up and being a leader for the Ontario Reign

A week ago, when staring at the reality of having to ice a lineup without one of the team’s leading scorers Charles Hudon, Ontario Reign head coach Marco Sturm set out to motivate one of his other offensive weapons.

Sturm pulled Akil Thomas aside for a conversation and told him to take charge. That message resonated with the 24-year-old, who has blossomed into a leader for Ontario in his fourth season with the club.

Coming into a week full of three home contests, Thomas had gone five straight without scoring a point. That lack of production had been rare for him this season though. In fact, he had only been held off the scoresheet in five consecutive games one other time during the 2023-24 campaign and it was all the way back in late October.

Since then, Thomas has had the most effective season of his pro career and also the healthiest. The Toronto native missed two games earlier this month after taking a knee-on-knee hit from Calgary’s Clark Bishop that was called a major penalty, but otherwise, he’s suited up for every one of the other 60 games the Reign have contested this year.

“He’s been outstanding all year long,” Sturm said of Thomas’ play. “He has been our leader. With Hudon out and some other guys playing a lot of minutes, I told him to take charge. That’s exactly what he did.”

Since he received the vote of confidence from his coach, Thomas has led the Reign to three consecutive victories, scoring the winning goal in each of the games while totaling six points on four goals and two assists, along with a plus-6 rating. That stat line led to him being named the American Hockey League’s Player of the Week on Monday.

Thomas wasn’t on the ice for a goal against in any of the three Ontario wins and posted two points in each of the contests, recording a goal and an assist on Wednesday and Friday before netting two tallies Sunday afternoon.

“It helps when the coach believes in you,” Thomas said after his most recent performance which saw him score on both of his shots on goal to help the Reign defeat Bakersfield by a 4-3 score. “I think that’s the biggest thing that’s kind of helped me this year is him telling me what I’m doing well, and it gives me every reason to go out there and continue to do it.”

There’s no clearer sign that Thomas is comfortable in his role and playing with confidence than what he did to win Saturday’s game. In a low-scoring, defense-first battle that was tied 1-1 in overtime, he went for and executed an incredible move on the rush that featured a 360-degree spin before backhanding the puck under the crossbar in one motion.

As someone who has watched Thomas for the past three seasons, the move was impressive for sure, but it was equally as surprising because he generally isn’t a flashy player who tries to attempt the types of moves you see on highlight reels.

“I just got a pass and I had some speed and thought their guy was flat-footed so I just figured it would be a good time do to a spin-o-rama there,” Thomas said while laughing moments after the play has now has hundreds of thousands of views on social media.

Two of his teammates, Tyler Madden and Brandt Clarke, who have both had some impressive highlights during their own during their careers, were each impressed with the finish.

“That’s something special,” Madden said. “That was awesome. You only think about doing that maybe in practice to try it out but that was a sick goal and he deserves it.”

Clarke, who had a memorable moment of his own last month when he scored his first career NHL goal in Boston to defeat the Bruins in overtime, also had high praise.

“Oh, that was insane,” Clarke said. “That was one of the nicest goals I’ve seen in my entire life. To do it in overtime to win, in a tight game and a defensive battle is pretty impressive. All the credit to him.”

Thomas has been producing for the Reign all season, setting career-highs in every major offensive category with an even 21 goals and 21 assists for 42 points, which ranks fourth-most on the team. He also has nine game-winning goals on the year, which is the most of any AHL skater, and one above teammate Samuel Fagemo.

But this week, with the standings as tight as ever, that offense was what the Reign needed most. Ontario is in the middle of a race for playoff positioning with an eye toward home ice advantage in the postseason.

With 10 games remaining, the Reign occupy fourth place in the Pacific Division and sit just two points back of second, but they’re also only five points ahead of seventh, with three teams behind them trying to claw their way up. Finishers in second, third and fourth will get home ice during a best-of-three first round series.

“When guys go down, in a way this sounds weird, but I get excited to just take a little bit more charge and step up and be a leader,” Thomas said. “Personally, I just feed off of bigger moments like that where we have to pull together so for me it’s just a challenge I usually like.”

Thomas has also gotten the opportunity to play on a line with his close friend, Taylor Ward, who he said has made a difference for him. The two seem to keep each other focused, playing with high emotions.

“I feel good, I have that confidence back,” Thomas said. “I went through a little rut there, and I stopped focusing on the results and just started focusing on my play. Playing with Ward has actually kind of helped me as well, I think we have good chemistry so I think he’s helped me get back to my game.”

Ward has also taken his game up a level this season as well, leading the team with a +19 rating while appearing in 61 of the club’s 62 games in his second pro campaign.

After missing significant time with injuries in each of the past two seasons, Thomas isn’t taking any of this season’s success for granted. The former second-round pick was limited to just 13 games in 2022-23 and missed most of the first three months of 2021-22 before becoming an important player for the Reign down the stretch during a 41-win season for the team.

“Last year was just a very short season for him so I didn’t see much,” Sturm said. “We were working on a lot of things last year. How to become a leader and how to play the right way, with passion and grit. Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone, and he was not able to do that.”

Whether it’s been his age, health or encouragement from teammates like Ward, Thomas has grown and been able to make the progress that Sturm was looking for.

“This year, it’s totally different,” Sturm continued. “I give him a lot of credit. We’ve been addressing it. I’ve been talking to him a lot. He’s one of those guys that wants to hear the truth and that’s what I’ve given him all year long. As long as he answers the bell every night, I’m really happy. Hopefully, if he keeps going like this, he’ll get a crack with the Kings.”

Now that he’s starting to prove he can contribute on a consistent basis in the AHL, the next step is competing for that call-up. Due to LA’s roster construction this season that features limited cap space for maneuvers, there haven’t been many opportunities for forwards to come and make an impact, with Alex Turcotte and Samuel Fagemo earning the only recalls up front.

Thomas’ close relationship with Sturm will serve him well in that regard though, as the coach has been complimentary of his play throughout the season in their second year together.

At some point down the road, there might be an opportunity for him in the NHL, but at present Sturm is happy to see Thomas playing with that confidence in Ontario because with players like Hudon and Fagemo out of the lineup, the Reign have needed others to step up, and Thomas has done so at the perfect time.

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