By Sean Hartnett
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This could be the season that powerful winger Chris Kreider transforms into “beast mode.” Since making an electrifying debut during the 2012 playoffs, the 24-year-old winger has offered Rangers fans flashes of his true potential.

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With each passing year, Kreider has added consistency to his game by learning to blend rapid acceleration and a strapping 6-foot-3, 226-pound frame. Teammates rave about Kreider’s set of physical tools and his approach to training.

“He’s a unique specimen,” defenseman Kevin Klein said last season. “The guy is just an absolute freak of an athlete. He’s so strong and so quick – he gets up to top speed in one or two strides. It’s absolutely crazy.”

“I haven’t seen a guy with his speed, his shot power, the way he trains, the way he works out,” winger Rick Nash said. “I’ve never seen a guy like him. He’s got all the tools to be a star.”

His 2012 debut playoff campaign might feel like ages ago, but it’s easy to forget that Kreider has only skated in 169 career regular-season games. Consider phase one of Kreider’s career to be over.

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If phase one was about learning and acclimation, phase two is about application. For the past two seasons, Kreider’s points per game has held steady, posting P/GP of 0.56 and 0.58. With the Rangers losing the production and big-game experience of retired winger Martin St. Louis, a leap forward in Kreider’s development is all the more vital.

“When he really fine-tunes his game, it’s something special,” Klein said. “He creates so much chaos for the defense. He can burn you wide, show his speed off, then turn up and create lots of space and confusion. When he does that, he’s a special type of player.”

While the Rangers’ top line of Nash, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello returns intact, it’s unclear who will inherit St. Louis’ role as second line right wing and play alongside Kreider and creative center Derek Stepan. Blossoming youngsters J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes are the two most likely candidates to vie for second-line minutes.

“We have a great group of guys,” Stepan said in late July. “That’s where it really starts. How close our teams have been the last four or five years has a lot to do with the group of guys we have in the room. We’ve got a competitive group and there’s nothing but exciting things to come for us moving forward.”

The goal remains the same for the Rangers in 2015-16. This group has its eyes focused on fulfilling its Stanley Cup ambitions. If Kreider can take the next step forward, so might the Rangers.

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