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Lightning will pay price for success

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos struggled to play up to lofty expectations as an NHL rookie last season, but he's silenced his critics with a remarkable performance this year.

With a little over 15 games remaining in the schedule, Stamkos leads the Lightning in goals with 41 and is second on the team in points with 78. He's also among the top 10 players in the league in points and currently third overall in goals, behind superstars Alexander Ovechkin of Washington and Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh.

Should Stamkos, who turned 20 last month, avoid injury and maintain his current offensive pace, he could finish the season with over 50 goals and 95 points, a most impressive performance for an NHL sophomore.

Little wonder there was criticism of his exclusion from Team Canada at the Olympics. If he keeps posting up similar numbers leading up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi (and yes, the NHL will allow its players to participate) he won't be excluded again.

Stamkos has become the big star the Lightning believed he would become when they selected him in the 2008 entry draft, but that could also make it difficult to re-sign him in the near future.

He's in the second year of a three-year entry level deal paying him a base salary of $875,000 plus over $2 million in bonuses should he achieve certain criteria. The real problem will arise when his current contract expires.

Under their previous ownership the Lightning's payroll for this season – currently over $51 million including bonuses – was kept below the league's cap ceiling of $56.8 million and the average cap hit of $54.8 million.

New owner Jeff Vinik, who paid around $110 million – in cash – for the franchise, recently vowed the Lightning wouldn't be restrained by financial restrictions. That's good news for the club's future but could still make things tricky for the Bolts' efforts to re-sign Stamkos.

If the salary cap for 2010-11 remains roughly the same as this season's $56.8 million, the Lightning will have roughly $22 million in available space to fill half their 23-man roster.

They'll have to re-sign restricted free agent forwards Steve Downie and Ted Purcell, decide if they'll re-sign oft-injured blueliner Paul Ranger and unrestricted free agent defenseman Kurtis Foster, plus either re-up goaltender Antero Niittymaki or pursue a replacement via trade or free agency this summer.

Stamkos won't be a restricted free agent until next summer, but it might be to their advantage to consider re-signing him to a long-term extension anyway.

If they're proactive and re-sign him this summer it's possible they could get him inked to a five- to seven-year deal worth around $6 million per season starting in 2011-12. That's a lot of money to invest in a young player's potential but few have the potential of Stamkos.

The Lightning know he's capable of not only posting big numbers but is on the verge of superstardom, someone around whom they could rebuild into a future Stanley Cup contender.

If they wait until the summer of 2011 to re-sign Stamkos, they run the risk of his asking price being much higher than it might be this summer.

Another season of over 50 goals and 95 points could push that asking price into the range of $8 million to $9 million per season, which Stamkos could get via offer sheets from rival teams if Tampa fails to re-sign him before July 1, 2011. The last thing Lightning management needs next summer is another club setting the terms.

It could also create a potential cap problem down the road when Stamkos' veteran linemate Martin St. Louis and promising blueliner Victor Hedman are due for new contracts. The front office will also have to address problem areas in the roster, such as lack of a quality starting goaltender, a need for more offensive depth and more defensive grit.

It would be better for the Lightning to strike this summer to get their blossoming superstar under a more cap-friendly deal (or as cap-friendly as a contract for someone like Stamkos can be), one that could leave room to address other needs raher than risk paying far more next year.