But that doesn't mean there isn't value to be found in the coal space.
Stocks like Hallador Energy and Westmoreland Coal have either held the line or, in Westmoreland's case, actually gained momentum since 2011 for one simple reason: They didn't participate in the M&A madness that buried many of their peers in debt. "There will be a turnaround," Pipes said. "But you want to be sure you look for a company that has a balance sheet that's going to last through that point in time when the turnaround occurs."
Read MoreWhy utility bills won't be getting much cheaper
For the coal companies that survive, the turnaround could take three to five years, Levin said. "Coal's best days are behind it, at least for a long time. I think there are going to be survivors and companies that perish. Those that survive will be in much better shape, but it's going to take several years for the market to find equilibrium," he said.
He pointed to Alliance Resource Partners, a limited partnership, as a long-term winner, as well as Cloud Peak Energy, Consol Energy and Peabody as coal plays that have potential. "But it's not going to be for a while," Levin said.
The important thing to remember is that the fundamental case for coal is still there, said Paul Forward, managing director at Stifel. Regardless of regulations, reputation, a supply-demand situation that's out of sync or a softening in the metallurgical coal markets, in the U.S. alone, coal still powers nearly half of the grid. In some states, coal provides upward of 80 percent of grid energy. It's still the cheapest way to deliver BTUs to power generators, and the U.S. still possesses huge coal reserves—some 28 percent of the world's known deposits, Forward said.
"I can't tell you how many times I've read the 'death of coal' article," Forward said. "The funeral has been held many times. But here we sit, with coal at 40 percent of U.S. power. Coal's defense is that it's the immovable object that the unstoppable force of natural gas can't push out of the energy picture. It's going to take decades for gas to build up the infrastructure to do what coal does today."
—By Clay Dillow, special to CNBC.com