PHILADELPHIA — Despite an ice storm that closed his kid’s school and knocked out his home’s power, Paul Day was still able to phone in for his weekly conference call with reporters on Wednesday. In 15 minutes on the line, the Wings’ head coach/general manager discussed the scouting report on Colorado Mammoth (1-5) forward Kyle Killen, a rookie from Day’s hometown who has posted 10 points in his first three career games. He praised his own captain, Kiel Matisz, as the “best overall player” in the National Lacrosse League. He was joined by Wings (1-6) defenseman Anthony Joaquim, who explained how Philadelphia, despite its dire position in the standings, approaches each game one at a time.
None of this mattered because a few hours later Day made a trade that left much of the Wings’ fan base probing for answers far more consequential than those pertaining to a February matchup between two last-place teams. Forward Chris Cloutier was off to the Buffalo Bandits less than five months after becoming the second overall pick in the NLL entry draft. The move, which netted Philadelphia defenseman Ryan Wagner and a 2021 first-round pick, came as a surprise.
Here’s a look at three of the more pressing questions surrounding the trade:
What went wrong?
Cloutier, as Day said Wednesday night in a phone interview with NLL.com, has “great lacrosse pedigree.” A month before being drafted, Cloutier won Major League Lacrosse’s rookie of the year award. Two years prior, he led the University of North Carolina to a national championship. And he’s more than familiar with box lacrosse because of Major Series Lacrosse experience in his native Kitchener, Ontario.
So, why would the Wings — seven games into their first season — decide that they could not allow time for Cloutier’s pedigree to show? After all, Day noted just last week that he was impressed with some of 23-year-old’s adjustments in the midst of a three-game scoreless stretch.
Ultimately, Day’s decision to move on from Cloutier focused on two factors: fitness and fit.
When Cloutier arrived for training camp, Day said, the 6-foot-1 rookie listed at 227 pounds was not in the physical shape the Wings would have expected. Yet, through Philadelphia’s first three games, Cloutier produced. He racked up 13 points (seven goals, six assists) before failing to find the net in each of the Wings’ last four games.
Cloutier’s cold streak coincided with the acquisition of Kevin Crowley, which changed the complexion of the offense. Cloutier had been drafted to be the team’s offensive centerpiece; Crowley, last year’s NLL scoring champ, took that role upon arrival.
“(Cloutier) needed to be a number one guy with us, and he really isn’t going to be in the short term,” Day said. “It’s going to take some time. He can go to Buffalo and kind of work on his fitness and get fit to contribute there.”
A role player for essentially the first time in his life, Cloutier struggled during the past month with the Wings. He tried to emphasize setting picks, even though he was used to being the one for which the picks were set. He wanted to stop fast breaks, but often he was one of the slower players on the floor. “You might think that as you get older that the game slows down, but it gets way faster,” he said on Jan. 11. The Wings could not wait for him catch up, because Blaze Riorden, Matt Rambo and Jordan Hall — all lefties like Cloutier — were playing too well to sit.
“All of our guys have to be a good fit,” Day said. “We’re an offense that obviously has some pretty veteran players in Kevin Crowley, Kiel Matisz, Jordan Hall, Josh Currier…Everybody has a place, a role, and they all fit into that offense. After spending a couple months together with [Cloutier], he didn’t fit in as well as we thought he would have fit in. Obviously, as a new team, we think right now we’re pretty happy with the other parts of our offense.”
Is the return worth it?
When Day traded for Crowley after Week 4, he sent first-round picks in 2019 and 2022 to New England. At the time, the thought was that the upcoming draft class was not particularly strong and the Wings could reacquire a first-round pick down the line. Wednesday’s deal does just that.
Buffalo possessed both its own and New England’s 2021 first-round selections. Now, the Wings get whichever pick is better to pair with their own first-round slot. To have two lottery tickets in a jackpot drawing was enough to shed Cloutier.
“That’s two shots at some pretty good players. I think we kind of know who’s coming out that year is pretty good. Number one in Albany,” Day said in reference to the Danes’ sophomore standout, Tehoka Nanticoke. “I’m not saying that’s the guy, but it gives us two shots. It’s a good draft year. I really think ’20 and ’21, those are the two best drafts in the next ten years.”
Immediately, though, Philadelphia is compensated with defenseman Ryan Wagner. The banged-up Wings are aching on the back line, and at 24, Wagner will practically be a veteran in Philly. He totaled 11 points and 77 ground balls last season, and because of his athleticism had been on Day’s wishlist for some time.
“I had asked about Ryan Wagner for a little bit because they are so deep defensively and he fits into our style of play,” Day said. “He’s the type of person we want in our room. Ian Rubel coached him before, which was really good, when he was in juniors. It just kind of worked out for the both of us that they needed a left and we need a defenseman.”
Day believed the deal was best for all parties involved. The Bandits, down a lefty because of Josh Byrne’s injury, will instantly benefit from Cloutier’s arrival. The Wings have draft prospects to drool over and another body to plug into the defense.
But Cloutier, too, should benefit from a fresh start after a bumpy debut. A more significant role, whether it comes immediately or later on, can only help his confidence, which Day sensed was lacking. It’s something the longtime coach has seen countless times when younger players transition out of the rigid structure of an elite college program.
“[Cloutier] is going to be able to go to Buffalo for himself and work with some great people and a great team and not have to be that number one guy,” Day said. “I think that takes a lot of pressure off him.”
Day could see 40-goal seasons in Cloutier’s future. He knows the talent will prevail. It just won’t happen in Philly.
The Wings welcome the Colorado Mammoth to the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night, with the opening faceoff set for 7 ET. The game can be seen locally on PHL17 and streamed anywhere via B/R Live.