Now they're paying him in line with those expectations.
Vanecek and the team agreed to terms Tuesday on a $10.2 million, three-year contract that counts $3.4 million against the salary cap through 2025. After avoiding arbitration, he will make $3.55 million next season, slightly less than incumbent starter Mackenzie Blackwood, who is going into the final year of his contract.
"I'm super excited about what Mackenzie's upside is going to be and believe he's going to have a rebound year," general manager Tom Fitzgerald said last week. "It was important to go out and find someone who was as hungry to be a No. 1 goalie and go out and push each other."
New Jersey did that by acquiring Vanecek in a trade with the Washington Capitals at the NHL draft, swapping picks to fill the spot in tandem with Blackwood that previously belonged to veteran Jonathan Bernier, whose career is in jeopardy after hip surgery.
After Blackwood's last season was derailed by a heel injury, Vanecek gives the Devils a level of dependability in net. The 26-year-old Czech went 20-12-6 with four shutouts, a 2.67 goals-against average and .908 save percentage with the Capitals last year, splitting time with Ilya Samsonov.
The Capitals opted to trade Vanecek and not tender Samsonov a qualifying offer in the name of overhauling their goaltending with Stanley Cup-winning starter Darcy Kuemper and backup Charlie Lindgren. Samsonov signed a $1.8 million, one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"The young guys were good," Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. "I guess it's a little frustrating that I wish one of them would have taken over the No. 1 spot. And it seemed like one or the other were going to, but then they never quite did it and I think we ran out of time to wait for it. I still think they both have good futures in the NHL. They're still young, they're still improving. It was just a situation where we tried it and we don't have more time to stick with them both."
The rebuilding Devils have that time. Fitzgerald thought they'd take a major step forward last year before the injuries to Blackwood and Bernier forced them to dig deep into organizational goaltending depth, with Nico Daws, Jon Gillies, Andrew Hammond, Scott Wedgewood and Akira Schmid all seeing action.
Fitzgerald said New Jersey would have been better with just average goaltending and expects even better with Blackwood healthy and Vanecek in the mix.
"For a third summer in a row I feel very comfortable with our goaltending and really excited," he said. "I think that position will help dictate everything else, and we feel real confident about that."