Canada, already a favorite for the gold medal at the 2012 World Junior Championship, solidified that label when it was announced Thursday that two NHL-quality forwards would be made available for the tournament.
Tampa Bay's Brett Connolly and Anaheim's Devante Smith-Pelly were loaned by their teams to Hockey Canada for possible use at the tournament, which runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2012, in Edmonton and Calgary.
Connolly, the sixth pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, has four goals and four assists in 28 games, but he doesn't have a point in six games, has gone 10 games without a goal, and has played less than 10 minutes in four of his last five games.
"I don't see it as a step back," Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman told the St. Petersburg Times. "It's important for these young guys to play in these big events in pressure games. They make you better. We still want him here, but what's best for Brett Connolly in the long run is best for us all. I'm confident this is the right thing for him."
Connolly had three assists in seven games in helping Canada win a silver medal at last year's tournament.
"He gets to go there and be one of the leaders who is counted on to set the example," said Yzerman, "and be the guy the coaches and players look to to make a difference. That's great for him."
Ducks GM Bob Murray feels the same way about the chance Smith-Pelly now has.
"This is a great opportunity for Devante to continue his development," he said. "Being a candidate for Team Canada in such a prestigious tournament is a great honor. He's improving each day as an NHL player and we hope he can continue his progress after playing for his country. We fully expect him to play a prominent role in the upcoming tournament for Canada."
A 2010 second-round pick, Smith-Pelly has three goals and two assists in 26 NHL games. If he makes the team, it will be his first World Junior Championship experience.
Connolly and Smith-Pelly will take part in Canada's pre-tournament camp, which runs Dec. 10-14 in Calgary.
Six other Canadian-born players currently in the NHL still retain eligibility for the tournament, but it's highly unlikely any of them will join Connolly and Smith-Pelly in Calgary -- Boston forward Tyler Seguin, Carolina forward Jeff Skinner, Edmonton forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Philadelphia forward Sean Couturier, Columbus forward Ryan Johansson and Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson.
Canada hasn't won a WJC gold-medal since it's five-year tournament winning streak was ended by the U.S. in the gold-medal game at the 2010 tournament in Saskatoon. This is the first time the tournament is back in Canada since then; last year's WJC was in Buffalo.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK