Until recently, it was considered inevitable the Tampa Bay Lightning will re-sign superstar captain Steven Stamkos. Several factors, however, could make this a difficult decision.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle recently wrote an interesting piece suggesting today’s general managers must be smart, rational and ruthless if they wish to maintain a successful franchise under salary-cap constraints. Mirtle cited the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings as recent examples where GMs paid the price for loyalty toward their stars at the expense of roster depth. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman could be facing a similar situation.

Re-signing Steven Stamkos could hurt the Tampa Bay Lightning over the long term.

Re-signing Steven Stamkos could hurt the Tampa Bay Lightning over the long term.

Under Yzerman’s management, the Lightning have swiftly joined the ranks of the NHL’s top teams. They’re currently jockeying with the New York Rangers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final. Even if they fail to advance to this year’s Stanley Cup Final, they should be among the Cup contenders over the next several years.

Stamkos, of course, is a key part of that. He’s not just their captain but also the face of the Lightning franchise.

The 25-year-old center is among the NHL’s elite snipers, exceeding the 40-goal mark four times in his seven NHL seasons. He’s a two-time winner of the Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer and was twice named to the NHL Second All-Star team. He holds the Lightning record for most goals in a season ( 60 in 2011-12), led the Lightning in scoring three times (including this season) and finished second twice.

Re-signing Stamkos to a long-term extension seems like a no-brainer. However, as The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa observes, Stamkos’ asking price, uncertainty over the salary cap in the future and the Lightning’s depth could make this a difficult decision. It could force Yzerman to consider trading the superstar to ensure the Lightning possess sufficient depth to continue winning in the coming years.

Stamkos’ position among the NHL’s elite talent ensures him of a massive pay raise. He’ll either get it from the Lightning before his eligibility for unrestricted free agency next July, or another club if he hits the open market.

Currently the highest individual annual salary-cap hits belong to Chicago Blackhawks forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, with each earning $10.5 million. The highest actual salaries this season were paid to Nashville’s Shea Weber ($14 million), Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby ($12 million), New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and Minnesota’s Zach Parise and Ryan Suter ($11 million each), with Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Toronto’s Phil Kessel and Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux each making $10 million.

Stamkos has a year remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $7.5 million, though in actual salary this season he made $8 million. Next season, that dips to $5.5 million. He’s going to seek top dollar from the Lightning. It’s wishful thinking to assume he’ll accept a “hometown discount.”

Yes, he loves living and playing in Tampa Bay. Yes, he wants to play for a winner, and yes, he wants to win a championship with the Lightning. But he will still want to be paid like one of the NHL’s top stars. If the Lightning won’t pony up, somebody else happily will. It’s no stretch to assume his agent will seek a deal comparable to Toews and Kane, perhaps more.

Assuming the Lightning re-up Stamkos to a seven- or eight-year deal worth $10.5 million annually, that’s going to create a serious cap crunch for the Lightning over the next two seasons when several of their young stars are due for new contracts.

If the Canadian dollar remains below .85 cents US next summer, and it’s quite possible it will, the NHL salary cap could marginally rise from the projected $71 million for 2015-16 to perhaps $73 million for 2016-17. NHLPA membership unhappiness over high escrow payments could also ensure a marginal rise in the cap ceiling over the next couple of years if they vote against their annual five percent escalator clause.

Currently the Lightning have just under $40 million invested in 11 players for 2016-17. Factor in a $10.5 million per season cap hit for Stamkos beginning in 2016-17 and the Lightning will have roughly $50 million tied up in just 12 players for that season. Toss in, say, a combined $5 million in raises for forward Vladislav Namestnikov and blueliners Andrej Sustr and Mark Barbeiro (all restricted free agents this summer) and it’s now $55 million for 15 players. Assuming a $73 million cap for 2016-17, that leaves only $18 million to re-sign other key players in 2016.

Those players include goaltender Ben Bishop (UFA), defensemen Braydon Coburn (UFA) and Nikita Nesterov (RFA) and forwards Nikita Kucherov (one-third of the “Triplets Line”), Alex Killorn, Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown (all RFAs). Bishop, Kucherov and Killorn are the obvious priorities. Given their current performances, it could cost nearly $14 million just to re-sign them (with half going to Bishop), leaving little to re-sign or replace the others.

Note: Bishop is in fact a UFA in 2017, not next summer. I regret the error. While the Lightning will still have to pony up expensive raises for Kucherov and Killorn, it won’t put as much of a stretch on their 2016 payroll as it would’ve had Bishop been a UFA that year. Kucherov is coming off an entry-level contract without arbitration rights so an affordable two-year bridge deal at between $2.5-$3 million annually seems likely. Killorn has arbitration rights and could seek up to $4 million annually.

However, what this does mean is the Lightning will face a significantly greater cap crunch in the summer of 2017. In addtion to Bishop, their 2017 crop of free agents include forwards Tyler Johson and Ondrej Palat (the other two-thirds of the Triplets), Brian Boyle and Jonathan Drouin, defenseman Victor Hedman and backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. Of these, all but Hedman and Boyle are restricted free agents. Drouin and Vasilevskiy will be coming off entry-level contracts.

It’s possible Yzerman could part ways with Bishop if one of their young goalies steps up and outplays him next season. But if they don’t,  Yzerman will have to retain his starter, whose current cap hit is $5.95 million.

Johnson, Palat and Hedman are the other “must-signs” of this group. Given their current career projections, they’ll be in line for substantial raises. Hedman’s quietly become one of the NHL’s best defensemen. By 2017, it could cost $8 million per season to re-sign him. Johnson and Palat could each be worth that much as well. Should Drouin explode into the assist machine he’s projected to be, even a bridge contract for him could get pricey.

Assuming the Lighting re-sign all their best 2016 free agents and another marginal increase in the salary cap for 2017-18 (let’s say to $76 million), they simply won’t have enough room to re-sign all of their best 2017 free agents. Yzerman could face the stark choice of allowing his best defenseman to walk via the UFA market, or trading one or two of his top RFAs for more affordable – and likely less talented – returns.

That’s why trading away Stamkos this summer is one of those calculated, rational moves today’s general managers must make if they wish to maintain a successful franchise. It will free up $10 million in annual cap space that could be invested in keeping the bulk of the Lightning’s core intact for the next several years.

Despite Stamkos’ UFA status next summer, he will still fetch a strong return if traded this summer. The Lightning will be assured of at least a first-round pick, a top prospect and a good young player as part of the return. Those pieces can be used to maintain a well-stocked prospect pipeline, which could assure their success for a longer period of time. It could soften the blow of cycling out expensive or aging stars and perhaps avoid a significant overhaul in the near future.

If Yzerman’s re-signs Stamkos, he will either have to free up cap space in two years time by cutting into his roster depth or pray the salary cap ceiling for 2017-18 jumps to well over $80 million.

Yzerman’s done a superb job rebuilding the Lightning into a potential Stanley Cup contender in a short period of time. Given their depth in young talent, the Lightning could be a serious contender for years. How long, however, depends upon the cost of maintaining that roster.

Does Yzerman have it in him to make the smart, rational and ruthless move of trading away Stamkos? Or will he, too, eventually pay the price for loyalty? We’ll find out following this season.