Niagara IceDogs right wing Akil Thomas is traveling from hometown Toronto to Dallas, Texas, in a rented RV with his family just so he can sit, wait, and wonder when he arrives.
Thomas hopes the wait to be picked by a team in the 2018 NHL Draft won’t be as long as the drive to Texas – a journey that exceeds 1,400 miles and 21 hours.
“I’m pretty nervous now,” Thomas told me recently. “I’m going to be sitting in a chair waiting for my name to be called. It’s going to change my life, obviously. I don’t know who’s going to pick me, I really don’t know what to expect. For everyone, it’s kind of nerve-racking. It’s kind of your first experience of the NHL.”
Thomas is one of a least eight players of color who could be selected by one of the league’s 31 teams during the two-day draft that begins Friday inside Dallas’ American Airlines Center.
Cable’s NBCSN airs the first round in the United States at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time. NHL Network picks up Rounds 2-7 on Saturday starting at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time. In Canada, Sportsnet and TVA Sports broadcasts the draft both days.
Here’s a look at some of the potential picks:
AKIL THOMAS, right wing, Niagara IceDogs, Ontario Hockey League: NHL Central Scouting ranks Thomas as the 15th-best North American skater in the draft. The 5-foot-11, 171-pound forward notched 22 goals and 59 assists in 68 games and served as an assistant captain for the IceDogs.
He had 5 goals and 6 assists in 10 OHL playoff games last season. Thomas also played for Canada in the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation U18 World Junior Championship, tallying a goal and an assist in four games.
Thomas comes from a hockey family. His father, Khalil Thomas, was a career minor league player. Ditto his uncle, Leo Thomas, who was recently named head coach of the Macon Mayhem of the Southern Professional Hockey League. He’s currently North America’s only black professional hockey head coach.
Akil Thomas’ father and mother, Akilah Thomas, are owners of the Oshawa RiverKings of Canada’s Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League.
“I love hockey so much because I’ve been around it because of my uncle and dad,” Akil Thomas told me. “I don’t get tired of working on my shot in my back yard, I don’t get tired of going to the gym because I don’t see it as hard work. I see it as fun.”
Thomas is all business off the ice as well. Though still a teenager, he has his own clothing line.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Can play center or wing and plays with a balance of skill, will and a very strong sense of what needs to be done at any time” – TSN hockey analyst Craig Button, who ranks Thomas as a top-six play-making forward. TNS rank him 28th on its Top 93 draft list.
SERRON NOEL, right wing, Oshawa Generals: Central Scouting ranks Noel as the 10th-best North American skater.
The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder from Guelph, Ontario, had 28 goals and 25 assists in 62 regular season games for the Generals. He had an assist in five OHL playoff games and chipped in 2 goals and 4 assists in five games for Canada at the 2018 U18 world juniors.
Noel, 17, is the son of Dean Noel, a former Canadian Football League wide receiver. He steered Serron toward hockey because of concerns about the rate of concussions in football.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “He’s 6-foot-5 and one of the youngest players in the draft. He has the upside to become one of the premier power forwards in this league” – The Hockey Writers.
K’ANDRE MILLER, defense, USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program: Miller,18, is a smooth-skating defender who has moved up Central Scouting’s chart. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder from Minnetonka, Minnesota, jumped to 23rd-best North American skater from 31st at mid-term.
Miller had 7 goals and 17 assists in 50 games. Not bad for a player who switched to defense from forward two seasons ago. He skated for the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF U18 world juniors, scoring a goal and 2 assists in seven games.
Any NHL team that takes Miller could have to wait a few years for him. He begins playing for the University of Wisconsin Badgers and Head Coach Tony Granato this fall.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Strong skating, puck carrying defenseman who can quickly get the play moving forward. Athletic with excellent potential” – TSN’s Button, who projects Miller to become a Top 4 defenseman. Miller is ranked 24th on TSN’s Top 93.
JETT WOO, defense, Moose Jaw Warriors, Western Hockey League. Woo is hoping to make history and become the first player of Chinese descent to be chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft.
Defenseman Andong Song became the first Chinese-born player drafted when the New York Islanders chose him in the sixth round in 2015.
Woo may achieve his goal, even though his stock dipped with Central Scouting. The 17-year-old from Winnipeg is ranked the 28th-best North American skater, down from 20th at mid-term.
Named after Chinese action film star Jet Li, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Woo had 9 goals and 16 assists in 44 games last season for Moose Jaw. He scored 2 goals and 1 assist in 14 WHL playoff games last season. He also contributed a goal and an assist for Team Canada at the IIHF U18 world juniors.
“I’m not exactly sure if my dad is a big fan of Jet Li…he might be,” Woo told NHL.com. “I know that’s where my name came from. I know my grandparents liked the name.”
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Poised defender with above-average speed and a strong understanding of the game” – The Sporting News, which had Woo 56th in its April rankings.
JERMAINE LOEWEN, left wing, Kamloops Blazers, WHL: Loewen, 20, aspires to be the NHL’s second Jamaican-born player. Graeme Townshend – a forward who played for the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, and Ottawa Senators – was the first.
Loewen is ranked as the 160th-best North American skater and is projected as a potential late-round pick. At 6-foot-four, 221-pounds, Loewen was the Blazers’ leading scorer last season with 36 goals and 28 assists in 66 regular season games.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “A raw player player with a huge frame. Plays a very impressive game with good on ice smarts, He can be heavy on his feet, but there is no denying his ability to get the job done. Loewen could turn into a Wayne Simmonds-type player” – ISS Hockey.
AUSTIN WONG, center/right wing, Okotoks Oilers, Alberta Junior Hockey League: Ranked 174th among North American skaters by Central Scouting, Wong was the Oilers fourth-leading scorer last season with 25 goals and 29 assists in 55 AJHL games.
The 5-foot-10, 189-pound 17-year-old from Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, is committed to play Ivy League hockey for Harvard University starting in the 2019-20 season.
Wong’s older brother, right wing Tyler Wong, played last season for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League and the Quad City Mallards of the ECHL.
He was an NHL preseason and training camp sensation for the Vegas Golden Knights last September. Tyler Wong scored the first goal in Golden Knights history in an exhibition game against the Vancouver Canucks. He finished the game with a hat trick – three goals.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “A pitbull of a power forward who combines skill and truculence…He gets in on the forecheck and is able to make quick reaction plays that lead to scoring chances around the net,” Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst.
ISAAC NURSE, right wing, Hamilton Bulldogs, OHL: Yep, another Nurse looking to make it big in hockey. Ranked the 180th-best North American skater, Nurse notched 17 goals and 13 assists in 68 games for Hamilton last season. He added 7 goals and 4 assists in 21 OHL post-season contests.
Unlike cousin Darnell Nurse, a defenseman drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, Issac Nurse is taking the long road to the NHL. The 19-year-old Hamilton native was initially cut by the Bulldogs and played Canadian Junior B hockey in 2015-16 before rejoining the hometown Bulldogs the next season.
At 5-foot-10, 174-pounds, Nurse comes from one of Canada’s most competitive athletic families. Sister Sarah Nurse starred at the University of Wisconsin and played for Canada’s women’s hockey team at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Cousin Kia Nurse, Darnell’s sister, is a point guard for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team and played for Canada at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janerio.
Isaac’s father, Roger Nurse, was a star lacrosse player. His uncle, Richard Nurse, was a wide receiver for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. An aunt, Cathy Nurse, was a hoops star at Canada’s McMaster University. And former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is a relative by marriage.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “He’s hard to play against and he fits into how we want to play…He’s a big part of why this team is where it’s at right now” – Hamilton Bulldogs Head Coach John Gruden.
MONTANA ONYEBUCHI, defense, Kamloops Blazers, WHL: A physical 6-foot-3, 209-pound blue-liner, Onyebuchi dropped off Central Scouting’s list after being ranked the 216th-best North American skater at mid-term.
About the name: Onyebuchi’s father hails from Nigeria and moved to Canada following high school.
Onyebuchi, 18, had 4 goals and 13 assists in 62 games for the Blazers and the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. The Dugald, Manitoba, Canada, native also accumulated a whopping 109 penalty minutes between the two teams. Think 2015 sixth-round draftee Bokondji Imama.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Onyebuchi is a bit of a wild man who is fearless, yet feared by others. He can definitely fight and be a physical presence, but Onyebuchi is also a powerful skater with a raw skill-set that suggests he has a pro upside” – The Hockey Writers.
Some lower-ranked players may not get their names called in Dallas on Friday or Saturday, but that doesn’t mean NHL teams won’t come calling.
They could be invited to NHL rookie and prospect camps teams hold shortly after the draft. The camps, tryouts of sorts, can lead to NHL or minor league opportunities down the road.
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