The sector outlook may get a little better in the medium term, as growth in Asia gives companies like Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak Energy a chance to pursue new markets, even if confidence in that opportunity is wobbly right now. The problem with this global pivot is that coal companies have been talking it up for a few years already, but just as demand in China began to slow.
Coal exports to China are down almost 85 percent since early 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And Australia, where Peabody also has operations, has emerged as a key competitor for China's imported-coal business.
International prices for metallurgical coal used to make steel have plummeted by more than half since 2011, according to the EIA, hurt by a growth slowdown in China that has cut into commercial construction in the world's most populous nation.
Read MoreCNBC Explains: The energy demand forecast
The International Energy Agency predicts that global demand for coal will grow at an average annual rate of 2.1 percent per year through 2019.
"China will continue to depend on coal for economic development and affordable energy," Peabody Energy CEO Gregory Boyce said. "We're confident coal will be [China's] dominant energy source for decades.''
Consol Energy, meanwhile, has diversified and now gets most of its revenue from natural gas—it recently released plans to spin off some coal operations into separate entities. Nacco is a mini conglomerate that also sells small appliances. Closely held Murray is buying up other mines—it bought half of Consol's coal operations in 2013—to drive down unit costs.
"I don't know what will happen in the long run, but in the short term Consol's strategy is working best," Zubets-Anderson said.
That's obvious from the stock performance, down 15 percent in the past one year versus "true" coal stocks like Arch, down 65 percent.
The third leg of the rebound strategy, cost-cutting, has gotten the most traction in the opinion of Stifel Nicolaus analyst Paul Forward.