The sports world saw the Cleveland Cavaliers lose LeBron James, one of the best basketball players of all-time, in 2010 without allowing his team to receive any valuable assets in return.

It was a worst-case scenario come true for the Cavs, and it stressed the importance of protecting assets, even if that means making difficult and unpopular choices.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are in a similar spot with Steven Stamkos, their No. 1 center, captain and best player. Like the 2009-10 Cavaliers, this season’s Lightning are one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, despite their struggles in the first half. Yet the Lightning cannot allow the prospect of a deep playoff run in 2015 ruin their chances of being a contender for the next decade.

If the Lightning and Stamkos are unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 29 trade deadline, general manager Steve Yzerman must deal his captain to avoid the disastrous situation in which the superstar center leaves Tampa Bay for nothing as a free agent over the summer. Doing so wouldn’t be easy, however, because Stamkos holds all the cards with a full no-movement clause in his contract.

How likely of a scenario is Stamkos re-signing?

“The lines of communication are always open,” Stamkos recently told Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s definitely encouraging to hear that.”

Losing a player of Stamkos’ talent would hurt in the short term, but he’s not totally irreplaceable, and at what cost do the Lightning value his services? What if he demands to be the highest-paid player in the league? Given his incredible offensive output since his rookie season — only Alexander Ovechkin has scored more goals since 2008-09 — that sort of demand wouldn’t be outrageous.

Chicago Blackhawks forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane lead the league with salary cap hits of $10.5 million, and Stamkos could easily eclipse that, especially if he reaches the open market because players of his caliber in the prime of their careers almost never reach UFA status anymore.

Remember, the Lightning must look ahead to other players due raises over the next few years. That list includes forwards Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov.

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It also includes No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman, who by 2017 will be a UFA and quite possibly an $8 million player. The talent level on this blue line after Hedman and Stralman drops off significantly.

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Re-signing these young players becomes even more difficult if the Lightning are unable to move the burdensome contracts of Ryan Callahan, Matthew Carle and Jason Garrison.

Another thing to consider is the Lightning could still be a top contender in the East even if they trade Stamkos. As mentioned, the Lightning are loaded with young talent, particularly at forward. The blue line is OK, but top prospects and former first-round draft picks Anthony DeAngelo and Slater Koekkoek have top-pairing potential.

The goaltending is solid with Ben Bishop having an excellent season and backup Andrei Vasilevsky widely viewed as one of the league’s most talented young netminders. Head coach Jon Cooper also is one of the best young minds in the sport and has pushed almost all of the right buttons in his short tenure with the team.

The Lightning wouldn’t be too far from top contender status in the East if they combined their current core with quality assets from a Stamkos trade. A top-six center, another NHL roster player, a prospect or two and a draft pick wouldn’t be bad haul for Stamkos.

The best option, obviously, would be to re-sign Stamkos. He’s one of the five or so best centers in the game and sells tickets with his dazzling offensive play. But the Lightning cannot allow him to walk on July 1 and have their Stanley Cup window close as quickly as it opened.

It’s not like the Lightning would be as bad as the Cavaliers were after losing James and be in a position to win the draft lottery for a few years. Stamkos leaving as a UFA would make the Lightning a fringe playoff team — the absolute worst position to be in.

Thumbnail photo via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images