|ESPN.com: Cross Checks||[Print without images]|
PITTSBURGH -- If there's one guy in the Pittsburgh dressing room that's really looking forward to having a healthy Sidney Crosby in the lineup, it's relative newcomer James Neal.
The 24-year-old winger was acquired by the Penguins from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline in March in a deal that was meant to answer the oft-asked question in Pittsburgh: who will play with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin?
Neal seemed like an ideal acquisition; he had size, good hands, a quick release and had proven himself to be a consistent NHL scorer with three 20-goal campaigns.
The problem for Neal and the Penguins was that Malkin and Crosby were both injured when he arrived. Neal struggled, scoring just once in 20 regular-season games and adding just one goal in seven playoff contests as the Penguins were ousted by Tampa in the first round.
"Of course it was frustrating," Neal said Friday. "I want to come in here and score goals and help the team win, and it was tough finding the back of the net. But it's just kind of a build-up for this year, give myself a fresh start. I had a good summer and [I'm] just ready to go."
If he does play with Crosby, the left-handed Neal would likely move to the right side, a switch he's prepared to make. He has also had a small taste of working with Crosby during recent informal on-ice workouts.
"You know how good he is and what he does on the ice, it's unbelievable," Neal said. "It definitely would be an unbelievable chance to be able to play with him and hopefully we can do well together."
Whether it was stage fright or difficulty adjusting to a new team and new systems that contributed to Neal's lack of production, GM Ray Shero is expecting a much different player this season.
"There's no reason for him to score two goals in 27 games. Seriously. This guy's too good," Shero told ESPN.com on Friday. "He's a motivated player. It's a good challenge for him."
• Malkin said his surgically repaired knee is about 90 percent and he is expected to take part in all training camp drills.
• Brooks Orpik, recovering from offseason surgery to repair an abdominal muscle tear, is close to 100 percent and cleared to practice, but coach Dan Bylsma will ease him into training-camp workouts.
"We'll see as he goes along with the level that he's comfortable with," Bylsma said. "He hasn't really put together days where he's been in contact and in the bustle of practice. So we'll see as he goes along, but he'll be out there participating."
• Craig Adams, who underwent an appendectomy last month, is expected to be at, or close to, 100-percent health.
• Dustin Jeffrey, rehabbing a knee injury, is cleared to practice but not cleared for contact.
• Boris Valabik, the former Atlanta Thrashers prospect, is not ready for action as he recovers from a knee injury.