In his 15 years as head honcho in San Jose, Doug Wilson has never been narrow-sighted when it comes to searching for talent in the first round of the NHL draft. Wilson has gone down every route imaginable: CHL, Europe, USHL, NCAA. You name it, Dougie has taken a first-rounder (or two) from it.
Out of all the leagues that source the NHL Draft, the league with the most players selected is almost always the CHL. That’s why it may be somewhat surprising to learn that in his entire tenure as the San Jose GM, Doug Wilson has only taken one true center from the CHL in the first round. Ever. That pick? Logan Couture, from the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s at ninth overall in 2007. Not bad.
I think it’s about time he explores the CHL center route again (the OHL center route specifically) in 2018 with the 21st overall selection. And one guy who might be there (fingers crossed) at 21 is playmaker Akil Thomas from the Niagara IceDogs.
Thomas is not physically imposing. He stands at 6-feet-0 and weighs 170 pounds, but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to. What does matter is how he can make the puck go in the net from pretty much anywhere on the ice, in every way imaginable. Beautiful cross-ice passes. Tipping in rebounds. Dekes around the goalie. Wrap-arounds. Spicy wristers. Setting up one-timers. Putting away one-timers.
The excellent numbers that he’s put up as a teenager in the best junior league in the world aren’t completely attributed to his skill either. It can also be attributed to his ability to see the play before it happens, be in the right spot, and use his teammates as much as possible. Thomas thrived in the distribution role on the IceDogs’ power play, usually positioning himself along the right-wing half-boards (in a very similar role to the one Joe Thornton plays on the Sharks top power play unit).
The alternate captain Thomas (even as one of the younger players on the team) led Niagara in points this year (81) and pushed the team to their best record since 2011-12, back when the Hamilton Brothers and Ryan Strome were skating for the IceDogs. In the playoffs, Thomas posted 11 points in 10 games before Niagara fell in the semifinals to the eventual OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs in five games. Thomas will certainly want to improve on that result next year, when he will most likely suit up for the IceDogs before competing for a job in the NHL in 2019-20 right when Joe Pavelski’s contract expires Huh? Who said that?
Areas of Improvement
Though Thomas’ numbers are very impressive, the eyeball test on Thomas doesn’t seem to appease every scout. Scouts commend Thomas for his hockey IQ, but are also quick to note that while a gifted player, he isn’t elite at any particular facet of the game. He’s a very quick skater, but not blazing fast. He has a great shot, but it could be harder. He has the ability to make beautiful dangling moves around defensemen, but would rather make the simple play. Scouts seem to think a lot of his scoring is due to his positioning rather than his ability to make the play happen from scratch. He may not be a player that immediately catches your attention, but always seems to show up multiple times in the scoresheet after the game is over.
The Hockey News claims that best-case NHL career trajectory for Thomas is similar to that of Josh Bailey, which is a rather large compliment considering Bailey was nearly a point-per-game player this year. But I think that comparison is a little bit off considering the fact that Bailey is first, not a center, and second, had the benefit of playing with an elite center in John Tavares. I think with his vision and finishing ability, Thomas could be the next Brayden Point, Joe Pavelski, or even Danny Briere. Here are some highlights of Thomas making play after play with Niagra. You’ll notice there aren’t too many unreal fall-off-your-chair goals, but remember: when it comes to goals, every team will take quantity over quality every day of the week (and if you’re just here for highlight reel plays, go to 0:21 to see Thomas skate literal circles around the Peterborough defense).