By Sean Hartnett
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Will he or won’t he develop into a bona fide star? That’s always been the question dogging Rangers winger Chris Kreider.

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I sat down with the powerful, 6-foot-3 forward during training camp last summer and chatted with him about expectations. He fully understood what was at stake. With restricted free agency looming, his goal was to position himself in the best way possible to earn his place in the Rangers’ long-term plans.

“I think everyone wants to be part of the core group – so they don’t get bumped, traded, moved, not re-signed,” Kreider told last September.

He went on to finish the 2015-16 regular season with 43 points in 79 games. The 25-year-old got snagged in some lean stretches last season but closed out the regular season on a hot streak, recording 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in the final 12 regular season games.

The NHL is very much an earn-it league, and Kreider will continue to divide opinion until he realizes his full potential by becoming a 30-goal scorer, 60-point getter. He has hovered between 0.54 and 0.58 points per game over the past three seasons and is yet to make the leap everyone expected since capturing the attention of the hockey world by shining on the playoff stage as a 20-year-old in 2012.

Kreider could just be a late bloomer. Martin St. Louis recorded his first 70-point season at age 27. Johan Franzen was 29 when he first eclipsed the 50-point mark. Teammates Kevin Klein and Rick Nash certainly see the enormous potential in Kreider’s game. The Boxford, Massachusetts, native possesses a power-speed game that few NHL forwards can match.

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

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

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Currently a restricted free agent, Kreider filed for salary arbitration July 5. Salary arbitration hearings will be held in Toronto from July 20 to Aug. 4. There’s plenty of time for Kreider and the Rangers to avoid arbitration. Deals frequently tend to be sealed just before a scheduled hearing. That was the case when the Blueshirts re-signed Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky in 2011. Talks between Derek Stepan and the Rangers went down to the wire last summer before agent Matthew Oates and general manager Jeff Gorton struck an 11th-hour deal.

On Thursday, the rival Devils re-signed productive winger Kyle Palmieri to a five-year, $23.25 million contract. Palmieri’s $4.65 million annual-average value contract makes for an interesting measuring stick to determine Kreider’s worth both in salary and term.

Both Palmieri and Kreider entered the offseason two years away from unrestricted free agency. They were each drafted in the first round in 2009 and are both 25. Palmieri recorded a career-high 57 points in 82 games last season.

My gut tells me Kreider will surpass Palmieri in the near future and go on to reach the level of true stardom. His tools are more high-end than Palmieri’s. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kreider one day blossoms into a 65- to 70-point man.

The Rangers could tie him down to a short-term deal. It would give the Blueshirts more time to determine whether Kreider is worth a long-term commitment and for Kreider, it would give him the chance to raise his earning power if he develops the right way. The Rangers are in a sticky cap situation given the need to complete deals with key RFAs J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Dylan McIlrath.

Another option is what I’d like to call the “McDonagh option.” The Rangers signed captain Ryan McDonagh to a six-year deal worth $4.7 million AAV in the summer of 2013. The contract has turned out to be one of the best bargains for a top-pairing defenseman league-wide. The Rangers could choose to offer Kreider a deal similar to Palmieri both in dollars and term. Crucially for the Rangers, it would guard against the possibility of Kreider hitting unrestricted free agency during his prime years.

If the Rangers can lock down Kreider to a Palmieri-like contract, it might look really good a few years down the line should No. 20 reach his full potential.

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Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey