The Winnipeg Jets’ big defenceman Dustin Byfuglien is finally back in the lineup, but his legal troubles just won’t go away.
Jets coach Claude Noel confirmed Thursday that Byfuglien, who has been out with a knee injury since Dec. 27, will play tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He’ll “be a welcome addition for us,” Noel said after the Jets morning skate at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. But Noel cautioned that he is not expecting huge things out of Byfuglien just yet. “In all fairness he hasn’t played for awhile so we’ve got to be a little bit patient,” Noel said.
“Most times it goes good for the first game and then it drops of a little later... We’ll monitor his conditioning level and see where he’s at.”
But while Byfuglien seems to be over his injury, he has not surmounted his legal issues.
Byfuglien faces a number of charges over allegations of impaired boating. He was pulled over by police last August while boating on Lake Minnetonka near Minneapolis with his pregnant fiancé. Byfulglien passed a preliminary breath test but he refused to submit to a blood or urine test. Police later alleged he was under the influence of drugs. He was charged with impaired boating and refusing to take the tests as well as several minor boating offences.
On Thursday, Byfuglien’s lawyer, Mitch Robinson, met with prosecutors to try and strike a deal. Robinson was hoping the serious charges would be dropped and that Byfuglien would plead guilty to not have navigation lights and sufficient floatation devices on his boat. Robinson said the prosecutor refused and the case is now headed for trial.
“I am surprised,” Robinson said Thursday. “I can’t explain it.”
Both sides will meet again on April 19 for a pre-trial conference and a deal could still be struck then, he added.
There is much at stake for Byfuglien. The maximum penalty for refusing the tests is one year in prison and a $3,000 fine. While it’s unlikely Byfuglien would face jail time if found guilty, he could be barred from entering Canada, something that would jeopardize his hockey career. “He would be criminally inadmissible,” Robinson said.
However, if he pleads guilty to the lesser boating offences, Robinson said he would likely pay a $100 fine and still be able to cross the border.
For now though, the case looks to be headed for a trial later this year. “We are miles apart,” Robinson said referring to settlement talks. “And I don’t see us getting any closer.”
Legal troubles aside, several Jet players were thrilled to have Byfuglien back. “It’s huge,” said forward Bryan Little. “We missed his big shot from the point.”
Added Blake Wheeler: “He is the catalyst for our team...He makes us go.”
The Jets will be facing a tough opponent in the Lightning. Tampa Bay has won five straight games and seems to have turned the corner on its rocky season. The Lightning are also welcoming back several injured players including their big defenceman Victor Hedman.
We don’t want the tension off,” coach Guy Boucher said Thursday. “The reality is we are not a powerhouse team. We know when we slack off five minutes we’re cooked. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Boucher added that the players have to approach games like a rock climber.
“We have a rock climber mentality. Don’t look up, don’t look down. Focus on the rocks in front of you.”