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Big Buff, not Keith, eyeing Norris Trophy

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

LOS ANGELES — It’s the halfway point of the season for the Blackhawks, and Duncan Keith, the defending Norris Trophy champion as the league’s best defenseman, isn’t having quite the season he had last year.

Rather, it’s a former teammate in Dustin Byfuglien who’s considered the top contender for the Norris this year. Keith isn’t surprised by what Byfuglien is doing for the Atlanta Thrashers.

“Not really, to be honest with you,” Keith said Monday. “When I played with him when he first came into the league, he had a hat trick as a defenseman. He’s got a cannon of a shot.”

Byfuglien, one of the Hawks’ big offseason departures, leads all blue-liners with 16 goals, including six game-winners, and 41 points in 42 games. Heading into Monday’s game against the Kings, Keith had three goals, a team-high 21 assists and a minus-6. He also leads the league in ice time.

The Hawks have taken a lot of heat for giving up Byfuglien, who was inconsistent last regular season, in favor of other players. Byfuglien probably would have had a productive year with the Hawks after gaining a lot of confidence from last postseason and being a rare blend of skill, speed and size.

But it’s unlikely that Byfuglien would be having the same type of season if he were still in Chicago. The Thrashers system is different, and he was best suited at wing with the Hawks. Byfuglien also doesn’t play on the penalty kill, which all the Hawks’ top four defensemen do. He has played only 5:26 on the penalty kill this season.

“In Atlanta, he’s allowed to play wherever and go where he wants and play however he wants to play,” Keith said. “He’s jumping up in the rush. That experience at forward helped him, too, with his offensive ability. Now he’s back on D .  .  . [and] he’s thinking like a forward a lot of the times, but he’s playing defense.”

But Keith isn’t taking anything away from his ex-mate. He’s very impressed.

“He’s been great,” Keith said. “He’s leading the league in [defense] points. He’s a big reason why Atlanta is doing so good.”

Dowell out

Center Jake Dowell had been praised by coach Joel Quenneville all season for his consistency and his toughness. But Dowell was a healthy scratch Monday against the Kings.

Dowell didn’t play in the third period of the Hawks’ loss to the Ducks on Sunday. Asked why, Quenneville said, “I was double-shifting [Marian] Hossa to get him a little more ice time.”

But it’s clear now that Quenneville was unhappy with Dowell in some regard. Dowell has been a pleasant surprise this season with 15 points and a plus-10 in 40 games. The game Monday was the first time he was a healthy scratch this season.

Dowell and John Scott, who was a healthy scratch for the second game in a row, skated Monday morning at the Staples Center.

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