Darren Smith should have been the top WCHA rookie for 2015-16

WCHA top rookie honoree Corey Mackin left an impressive stat line on the surface, but Darren Smith was steadier from game to game over the five-month 2015-16 regular season. (Photo by Nick Wosika/Along the Boards)
Darren Smith should have been the top WCHA rookie for 2015-16
Al Daniel

Postseason action rightly holds no sway on awards designed to signify a top-notch regular-season performance. Still, this past weekend’s WCHA quarterfinals carried on what defined the second half for two Ferris State freshmen.

In turn, the role each rookie played in a two-game sweep of Northern Michigan reminded us that the wrong Bulldog earned league accolades the preceding Thursday.

There is no disputing that winger Corey Mackin percolated several significant servings of promise in a 23-point campaign. His brighter moments have set the ceiling for him to reach after as a sophomore.

All that will require is October-to-March consistency, which Mackin was missing on his regular-season rookie transcript. Likewise, he started on the third line, registered only one shot on goal and went pointless for each of the first two playoff bouts.

Goaltender Darren Smith, on the other hand, delivered the Bulldogs more stability in an inherently more demanding position. And his peak coincided with that of the team near the homestretch.

He was at it in each of the first two nights after he was snubbed, confining the Wildcats to two goals in each game. And he was at it for the better part of 14 consecutive regular-season second-half games. His only blemishes were an abbreviated season finale against Lake Superior State, a five-goal shelling by Bowling Green and a rampage by a Michigan team that has given everyone fits.

If Smith had not cemented his status as the starter in the first half, he had by the end of the Mariucci Classic post-New Year’s. That weekend started with senior Charles Williams taking the full drubbing in a 7-3 first-round loss to Harvard.

That would be the last time Smith assumed door patrol for a full game. But for Mackin, it was the beginning of a slump that saw him tally one goal and zero assists in eight outings to start the second half.

Mackin placed third on FSU’s final regular-season scoring chart. Early on, his company in that echelon (Gerald Mayhew, Chad McDonald, Kyle Schempp) had also been his linemates through a variety of shuffles.

Since then, he has spent the majority of the homestretch, as well as the playoffs, among the bottom six. The reduced ice time partially explains his dip in mere chances to produce. He logged three-plus shots on net in 11 of his first 23 appearances, but has done the same merely once in his last 14.

Read: ATB’s 2015-16 NCHC postseason awards

But another explanation is that opponents have figured him out faster than he can adapt and find a new formula for success. As a consequence, he has only touched the scoresheet four times since mid-January, doing so in each half of a regular-season series against NMU and BGSU. In all, he collected a mere six of his 23 regular-season points over the last 12 contests.

Conversely, nothing has changed in Smith’s workload since he took the torch back from Williams for a Mariucci Classic consolation victory. That 5-2 triumph over Connecticut started an eight-game win streak for a team that had entered its midseason break at 8-8-4 on the year.

For what it’s worth, Smith already had a winning record going in at 5-4-3, while Williams was 3-5-1. His efforts yielded better results in January and February with an uptick in offensive support from his blueliners and veteran forwards.

Granted, his shoddy outing that led to a swap at the second intermission in the March 5 regular-season finale dented his data a tad. But he still finished the regular season with a respectable 2.30 goals-against average and a sound .920 save percentage. Prior to that, dating back to his first full-length appearance, he had never retained a repellent rate lower than .922.

That speaks to a greater impact on FSU’s rise to the top half of the WCHA playoff bracket than Mackin can claim. The league press release announcing his accolade mentions that “Mackin found his name on the scoresheet in half (14) of his inaugural 28 league contests, while he factored in the game-winning goal (scoring or assisting) in six of Ferris State’s 13 WCHA victories.”

However, nine of those productive outings and five of those deciding points came in the first half. All of this was before Smith backstopped every minute of a season-best hot streak that saw the Bulldogs collect 12 points in seven WCHA engagements.

He only had three arguably substandard outings over two weekends thereafter. And even then, he repelled 31 Michigan shots and kept FSU in a contest with BGSU, which eked out a 4-3 decision on the strength of 40 stabs.

Mackin scored his most recent goal in that Feb. 26 game, and had ceded his top-six slot for the balance of this ride long before. Smith only yielded his crease to Williams for the final period of the regular season eight nights later.

Keeping head coach Bob Daniels’ blessing for the subsequent playoffs rewarded his broader game log and all that he put into it.

This is the quintessential team sport, and odds are Mackin and Smith alike are only concerned with their critical roles as part of FSU’s next crop of excellence. Still, in a slightly more just universe, the rest of the WCHA’s powers that be would have matched Daniels by bestowing the annual rookie laurel on the goaltender.

Al Daniel

Along the Boards' NCAA editor, Al is an alumnus of Shattuck-St. Mary's and Providence College. His work has previously appeared in the Faribault Daily News, Let's Play Hockey, Access North GA, Beyond the Dashers, the Pawtucket Times, USCHO, USA Hockey Magazine and Bleacher Report.

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