The Washington Times - June 25, 2011, 06:39PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. | It took until the 117th pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft before the Capitals made a selection. When they did, George McPhee said they went after a player who could be a “difference-maker” and whom goaltending coach Dave Prior ranked “way ahead of all the other goaltenders” – Steffen Soberg from Norway.

Soberg was an off-the-radar pick who wasn’t even listed by NHL Central Scouting. His numbers for Manglerud Star Ishockey of GET-ligaen in Norway weren’t stellar – a 4.17 goals-against average and .884 save percentage – but the Caps became interested when seeing him in the under-18 and under-20 world championships.

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“He’s a very athletic goaltender who in every game gave his team – which was always the underdog – an opportunity to win,” Prior said. “I like that type of goaltender who has instinctive qualities to battle to keep the puck out of the net, has good mobility, quickness, reacts to the situation.”

Norway was hammered in these tournaments, and Soberg even took himself out a game against Canada at the world junior tournament. Caps director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney liked how the 17-year-old goalie reacted.

“But he took it very person when the puck went in the net,” he said. “You could tell he was very upset with himself when they did score. So I really liked his level of compete and also his athleticism.”

Analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild watched that tournament and came away with a positive reaction of Soberg.

“I saw a goaltender who does have good raw athleticism, quick footwork and good hands,” Goldman said in a telephone interview Saturday afternoon.

According to Goldman, Soberg’s a good prospect but at 5-foot-11 he was the smallest goalie drafted. Because of that, Goldman said, “Soberg is gonna stick out like a sore thumb compared to all the other goalies who were drafted.”

Prior isn’t worried.

“He’s not a big goaltender. In some peoples’ eyes and in some teams’ eyes, he would be undersized in what they look for. For me, that’s not an issue,” he said. “He plays a very strong game in the crease, competes hard, takes no nonsense from opposition. I really appreciate him as a goaltender.”

Goldman expressed some surprise at the talented goalies the Caps passed over in favor of Soberg, including sixth-rounders Matt Mahalak and Lars Volden.

But given Washington’s goaltending depth throughout the organization – which Goldman ranks in the top five in the NHL – the pick is well worth the benefit of the doubt.

Obviously the Caps aren’t getting a close-to-NHL-ready guy like a Carey Price, or even someone who’s as far along as Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth were in 2006. But that’s where Prior hopes he and the rest of the staff found a hidden gem in Soberg.

“When we liked him as a staff over there at the tournament, we weren’t trying to draw any attention to him,” Prior said. “With the guys you take in those mid rounds, you’re looking at some exceptional qualities in their game that interest us.”

Another major thing that interests the Caps is Soberg’s willingness to play in North America next season in the Canadian Hockey League. Prior hopes a team will take him in Tuesday’s CHL European Draft and put Soberg on the same “fast track” as Neuvirth got on.

“I really do believe it’s the best league for goaltenders to develop in and it’s always a challenge in that initial year to come over and make the adjustment to a much higher speed, much more physical game around the crease area,” Prior said.

If he takes the same path as Neuvirth, no one around the Caps’ organization will be upset about taking this risk.